Arab journalists will not stay silent about abuse

IMS partner ARIJ (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism) is leading a new project to protect journalists from gender-based violence. It provides the first freely available regional resources.

Founded 15 years ago, ARIJ is one of the first organisations to promote, encourage and teach investigative journalism in the Middle East and North Africa. They provide training, coaching, mentoring and networking for investigative journalists in the Arab world.

Through their vast network of investigative journalists, the ARIJ team started to notice a serious issue among their women colleagues during the widespread Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020. Many of them experienced online harassment and hate speech related to their profession, particularly on social media, to a degree that it was affecting them personally and professionally. The ARIJ team soon decided to take action.

“We are a training institute specialised in investigative journalism, not handling online gender-based violence. But the need was so pressing that we decided that we had to act. Psycho and digital safety is part of a 360 degree safety approach,” says Rawan Damen, ARIJ’s Director General.

The team also discovered that these often young women did not have any tools or institutional support to handle the harassment. Many do not have the resources or trust in the system to pursue a legal route. Additionally, in many Arab countries, no unions will accept and represent journalists. Furthermore, there is a strong taboo surrounding the issue of gender-based violence, so women are likely not to share their experiences.

“We found out that they didn’t tell their families, they didn’t tell us, and they rarely told anyone in their workplace about the online attacks they were experiencing,” Rawan Damen says. “They were all alone in handling the injustice, and we wanted to provide a range of alternatives to either keeping silent or going to court.”  

A cross-cutting collaboration

Though not many statistics are available for the MENA region specially, the global numbers support the ARIJ team’s impression of the gravity of the problem. Women journalists and journalists of other gender identities live under a double threat – because they are marginalised and because they are journalists. Across the world, women journalists share similar challenges in the workplace ranging from gender-based unequal opportunities such as low pay and longer working hours, to severe physical abuse and online harassment. 73 percent of women journalists have experienced online attacks.

So in December 2020, ARIJ launched the I Will Not Stay Silent (IWNSS) project in a coalition with International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), Women in News (Wan Ifra), IREX, Meta Journalism Project and Germany’s Federal Foreign Office. With ARIJ as lead, the organisations collaborate on a 12-part series of webinars on gender inequality issues in media, a collection of online resources in Arabic, awareness raising videos, a diploma programme and 200 free of charge one-to-one digital clinics where journalists subjected to online violence can call for psychological support and safety guidance.

The new line of work has encouraged development within ARIJ as well. “Taking on this role has demanded quite a lot from us, and we have had to build new capacity within digital safety, organisational development and gender-sensitive approaches. Internally, we’ve learned a lot from this process, and it is challenging and exciting,” explains Besan Jaber, IWNSS project manager.

The first regional resources for Arabic-speaking journalists

The webinars were the first step. The series livestreamed on Facebook as well. The IWNSS team was not sure how the live streams would be received; they feared that they would be targets of online hate and that women would not feel comfortable participating.

“But on the contrary, we got very few negative comments, and we were completely taken aback with the engagement of the many people of all genders who participated and shared their personal stories, some for the very first time ever,” Rawan Damen recalls. On Facebook alone, the webinars reached 1.3 million people, and approximately 2,000 participated live. 

The team learned some important lessons. Firstly, sexism and harassment do not just affect or interest women; about 30 percent of the participants were men. Secondly, the need for this type of support extends far beyond media, but a lot of data on the topic is missing.

Another important track was the Together Against Discrimination diploma programme, which focuses on HR capacity and self-regulation within media. A selected group of journalists, activists, human rights defenders and lawyers from ten Arab countries spent four months diving into issues of gender equality and gender-based online violence. The programme equipped them with tools and methods for handling claims about harassment, gender inequality and misuse of power.

“It has also been a significant part of the course to incorporate gender equality and intersectionality as a lens, a mindset. It is not solely about reaching 50 percent women sources, for example, but to learn to think of gender as an integral aspect of all media work – well, as an integral way of seeing the world,” Besan Jaber says.

What is next?

The project has by far exceeded the expectations of the team, and today they have managed to create a network of support, guidance and ways to speak up about the issues of sexism, harassment and inequality. As they enter the second year of the project, their ambitions have only grown with the important lessons they have learned and the high level of engagement from regional journalists.

Besan Jaber highlights the ambition to further their intersectional, multi-layered approach: “We were so positively surprised by the number of women who will not stay silent and are ready to speak out publicly for their rights, but also the number of men and people of other genders. It made us realise the importance of continuing to expand our focus from women’s rights to the rights of all genders,” she says.

Rawan Damen mentions increased focus on tackling another important challenge that has become clear to the team: much of the data about the issues of gender harassment in the Arab world among people in the media are limited, inaccurate or outdated. ARIJ and IWNSS are well-positioned to take on this work, she explains: “As the leading investigative centre in the region, we will increase our focus on data stories and investigations that highlight gender issues, gender data and gender voices. Including the voices of survivors and women who are part of investigations exposing misuse of power like fraud, corruption, online harassment and hate speech.”

The IWNSS team will continue to provide Arab journalist with the tools, knowledge, and protection needed to share their stories with an Arab audience. In the year to come, they will coach and support journalists, especially women, to produce data-driven stories and investigations in both Arabic and English languages on gender issues and report on cases of inequality and abuse.

IMS’ work for gender equality

IMS has put gender at the forefront of its media development work, drawing inspiration from intersectional feminism to enhance its work promoting gender equality as part of the human right-based approach to media development. IMS’ goal is to contribute to a vibrant and inclusive civic space, where media-induced actions further human rights, gender and social equality, accountability and positive social, political and cultural change.

Read more about IMS’ strategy to promote gender equality here.