Journalists as Targets of Hate: The Impact of Hate Campaigns on Journalists’ Safety and Independence

The prevalence of hate in public discourse, coupled with impunity for most hate crimes, undermines public trust in general, trust in the media in particular. In turn, for journalists to work in hateful environments means working in conditions of continuously compromised safety. Compromised safety negatively impacts all aspects of journalists’ work, even if they are not targeted personally.

With support from IFEX, SEENPM member organisations organized on 2 July an online event, Journalists as Targets of Hate, to examine the impact of hate campaigns on the position of journalists, their safety and independence, and ways in which hate could be successfully countered.

The first panel was introduced by Bosnian media researcher Anida Sokol who presented regional overviews of a three-part research series conducted by SEENPM member organisations within EU-funded project ‘Resilience: Civil Society for Media Free of Hate and Disinformation’ implemented in the Western Balkans in Turkey: 1) research on hate and propaganda media models; 2) research series on hate narratives and 3) research on media trust and media-gender issues.       

The panel explored the impact of hate campaigns against journalists, with situations in Turkey and Serbia discussed by Nazan Özcan, chief editor of SEENPM member Bianet, and Nataša Kovačev of Euronews, Serbia. The discussion was moderated by Brankica Petković of SEENPM member Peace Institute, Ljubljana who coordinates SEENPM research activities.

Ms Özcan shared the details of the 2007 murder of Hrant Dink, a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent. He was shot in Istanbul at the entrance of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian Agos newspaper, which he edited. Dink was killed following a hate campaign against him which accused him of “insulting and denigrating Turkishness” after he stated, “I am not a Turk, but an Armenian of Turkey”. He was threatened several times by nationalists and racists. Frightened and unhappy with accusations and harassment, he intended to seek protection at the European Court of Human Rights. However, he was soon shot, which speaks of the intensity of hate campaign against him, Ms Özcan said.

Ms Kovačev reflected on the situation in Serbia where, according to her, journalists are frequently accused of being ‘foreign mercenaries’. Journalists who criticize government decisions are labelled as being close to the opposition and also as traitors. Additionally, due to the government capture of the media, the general public tend to agree. “Journalists have to explain themselves instead of doing their job”, Kovačev said.

The migrant crisis is a big topic in Serbia with the mindset of people slowly taking a turn for the worse. In the beginning of the migrant crisis people were more willing to help them knowing they are only transiting through Serbia, but now as the migrants are stuck in Serbia with other borders closed to them, people are seeing this as a problem. “And if you, as a journalist, are reporting on the migrant crisis from the human perspective, showing their point of view and what these people are going through, then you are also a traitor”, Kovačev said and explained how she was subjected to a smear campaign in relation to her reporting on migrants. A fake news statement accusing her of wanting to put all the migrants in empty houses in Serbia, accompanied by her picture on social media, spread very quickly. “It is very difficult to counter such attacks as they happen on social media and spread like fire”, Kovačev said. She tried to report this to Facebook, but there was no reaction. However, there was help from colleagues who debunked this on their social media profiles, as well as from a fake news debunking website in Serbia which debunked the fake information about Kovačev and then many news outlets republished this. She also had support from activists who deal with pressures and attacks on journalists.

Regarding the role of civil society in countering pressures and attacks on journalists, Özcan said that 90 percent of media outlets in Turkey are controlled by the government and despite NGOs being very active, their voice can’t be heard in a government-controlled media environment. Kovačev made a parallel with the situation is Serbia, saying that NGOs are not silent, but they can’t be heard in most of the media due to government control of much of the media landscape.

The second panel, introduced by Jovana Gligorijević, assistant editor of Belgrade’s weekly Vreme, saw leading journalists from Kosovo and North Macedonia, freelancer Una Hajdari and Miroslava Byrns of ‘Sloboden Pečat’, discuss experiences of reporting in hateful environments. The panel was moderated by Elvira Jukić Mujkić of SEENPM member Mediacentar Sarajevo.

Ms Gligorijević referred to the UNESCO report ‘The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists’  (published in spring 2021). As one of the journalists interviewed for the UNESCO report, she reflected on her own experience in the last eight years regarding hate speech and violence, filled with numerous death and rape threats. “I stopped counting”, Gligorijević said and added “There are websites established only for defamation”. She opined that the attacks against her have been triggered not only by her covering of interior politics, but also by her writings about violence against women. Ms Gligorijević argued that the violence against women journalists is triggered mostly by their opinion pieces written from feminist perspective, not as much as regular reporting. “Loud woman, woman with opinion, woman with attitude is highly irritating, regardless of the subject”, she said. Ms Gligorijievic also gave an advice when assessing the threats: “Journalists are prone to normalize these threats as being part of the job, so always check with someone outside the media.”

Gligorijević went on to say that last year she reported a “credible death threat” she received only after her editor and colleagues insisted. This eventually ended in the court finding the perpetrator guilty of a “textbook case of targeted harassment”.  Looking back at her feeling of guilt and “weird empathy” for the perpetrator, she pointed to the less prominent aspects of violence against women journalists – damage to their careers and health (she had to ask for the psychological help and considered leaving journalism following the harassment). In addition to this, Gligorijević quoted again the UNESCO report which argues that there is nothing virtual about the online violence because it spills offline. Finally, she added that she was a victim of fake content manipulation, hacking and doxing, and identity theft on social media, which are the main forums for violence against women, according to the UNESCO report, as Gligorijević pointed out. 

Ms Hajdari said she felt a bit more protected from targeted harassment online than Ms Gligorijević because she mostly publishes in English language media outlets, although this does not provide full protection from targeting by individuals and society. The topic that you cover attracts the eye online, she said, and she covers Kosovo and Serbia, as well as far right and nationalist groups and tendencies across the entire region. This has led to people having very angry and intense opinions about Ms Hajdari. Her worst experiences have been with diaspora communities and diaspora media outlets. This has made it harder to report the harassers to law enforcement because they are scattered world-wide. What helps is other journalists reporting about attacks and a sense of community supporting targeted journalist. Ms Hajdari also pointed out that reporting from Serbia for her is harder than from some other country because of “atrocious tabloid culture” that attacks journalists. However, she concluded that it is very helpful that targeted harassment is highlighted by international media human rights watchdogs.

Ms Byrns highlighted that institutional protection of journalists is a clear message to possible perpetrators. She shared her experience of lacking protection from the institutions when she received death threats following her reporting on the breaking of Covid-19 rules. She claimed that police in North Macedonia had never caught anyone threatening journalists. Although the President of Macedonia and politicians condemned the death threats, these were not followed by legal consequences for the people who threatened her. During 2020, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia registered 14 attacks against journalists – physical attacks, threats, verbal attacks, death threats – which resulted in “zero people behind bars”. Ms Byrns also spoke of changes to the Criminal Code that would recognize journalists as public officials. It would mean that the public prosecution could open the cases instead of journalists filing private lawsuits only. She welcomed the changes to the Criminal Code and expressed hope that they would be implemented without exception. Asked if women journalists should “back down” after receiving threats, Ms Gligorijević said that “it would be a defeat, because they want to silence you”. Ms Byrns said: “You must never stop talking – don’t stay quiet – that encourages those that attack you” and added that one has to ask for professional help and support from the newsroom as condemnation of the attacks from one’s superiors is very encouraging. She noted that there is also a lot of stigma regarding asking for psychological help.

The third panel looked at roles that different actors in the wider media landscape play, or should play, in confronting hate speech and dealing with its consequences. Federico Faloppa of the University of Reading provided introductory remarks. Croatian lawyer Vesna Alaburić and Helena Mandić of Bosnia’s Communications Regulatory Agency examined legal responses to hate speech and the role of media regulators in combating it. The panel was moderated by Saša Leković, the founder of SEENPM member Investigative Journalism Centre, Zagreb, and Fažana Media Fest.

Dr Faloppa, who is the principal investigator of the project ‘Combating Hate Speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina CHAS-BIH’*, supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund of Great Britain, explained that Council of Europe Committee of Experts is trying to draft new recommendations on hate speech for the 47 member states of the Council (available online). The main aim of the recommendations is how to combat hate speech. The experts are trying to address hate speech comprehensively. They are putting effort to define hate speech amid the absence of a common definition among the member states. A part of the recommendations is devoted to actors that should be involved in order to combat hate speech: internet intermediaries – platforms, transnational companies. Dr Faloppa said that a very big and important question across Europe right now is how to work with the internet giants, how to ask them to be responsible for what they do, how to hold them responsible as they disseminate hate speech across platforms.

Dr Faloppa said that very often the media, especially mainstream media, are platforms for dissemination of hate speech due to a lack of responsibility, but also with the aim to get more likes on social media platforms or to sell more copies. “Hate sells in the media sector”, Faloppa said. We need to ask media sector to develop, update and apply professional standards and codes of conduct and that’s another key question, Faloppa said: Do we have codes of conduct everywhere in Europe within CoE countries? In some countries there are strict codes, while in others we don’t have clear codes. So what is to be done? Can we share these codes across countries, can we have a European regulation of sorts, can we invite people from the media sector to share best practice among countries, he asked. We need to develop a supervisory body, including national authorities and national self-regulatory bodies to regulate hate speech. It is important that instances of hate speech are brought to public attention without amplifying them. Public service media in particular should not disseminate hate speech – this should be regulated at the governmental or state level, Faloppa noted. The CoE recommendations are not focused only on legal responses to hate speech, but also on awareness raising, training, education and initiatives to support the victims and also prevent hate speech at different levels. Journalists need to be provided protection, not only legal, but they also need professional solidarity. Dr Faloppa’s opinion is that the CoE recommendations should take into account not only obligations but also rights of journalists; create more opportunities for training of police force, lawyers, judges and civil servants as a comprehensive approach to this issue is needed. He concluded that only with multi-layered approach can we combat hate speech so as not to lose this battle.

Ms Vesna Alaburić, a Croatianmedia law expert, pointed out that there are forms of strong speech not based on racists or discriminatory criteria, which cannot be strictly understood as hate speech, such as commenting behaviour of a prime minister in official capacity – this is not hate speech, she said and added that people and journalists often confuse that kind of criticism with hate speech, and even politicians try to treat criticism against them as hate speech.

Freedom of expression lawyers from countries with stable democracies are strongly against laws that should sanction hate speech – their position is that stable democracies are healthy societies that can deal with hate speech in different ways, not with laws, prosecution, sanctions, but that public discussion about hate speech in such countries is enough to make everybody aware that such statements and acts are not desirable in tolerant, healthy democracies, Ms Alaburić explained. Since Croatia is still not a stable democracy, Alaburić thinks that there should be a combination of laws, prosecution and public discussion about hate speech. According to the documents of the CoE, we should be aware that not all forms of hate speech have to be sanctioned by criminal law, she said. Documents of the CoE recommend that not only criminal law, but also minor offence law, administrative law and some other civil laws should be applied if we want to fight all forms of hate speech, Alaburić added and concluded that criminal law should be reserved for the most dangerous forms of hate speech.

Ms Alaburić noted that public debates are full of hatred of many kinds; in Croatia politicians insult and defame each other not taking care about possible influence on public, and debates in the Croatian parliament are sometimes horrific, she said and explained that such public debates and discussion among highest ranking politicians influence the whole society. “Suddenly it’s normal that you use insulting terminology in the media and if you have such environment, then even racist, discriminatory speech is not so important as insulting speech is everywhere”, Alaburić said and noted that Croatian politicians are not aware of the consequences of their behaviour. Fighting hate speech should at the same time be fighting for tolerant public discussion at least among politicians, who should be exemplary when it comes to communication and resolving public disputes, she concluded.  

Ms Helena Mandić of Bosnia’s Communications Regulatory Agency (CRA) said that regulatory bodies don’t have a mandate to protect journalists, but stressed the importance of regulatory bodies conducting their duties to the best of their abilities, including handling cases of hate speech. However, the problem is that many regulatory bodies don’t have a mandate to regulate the online sphere while most of the attacks on journalists have moved to social media and it is extremely difficult to track such attacks. Also, there is a lack of action by other state institutions, Mandić said. CRA has had cases involving politicians and very insulting and dangerous statements where media were doing their job by the book, but there was no reaction. “We are not living in a fully functioning democracy where established democratic mechanisms will take care of such events”, Mandić said. What regulators can do in addition to their primary job is that they can and should react to every attack on media professionals, Mandić said and added “I hate to say it – we haven’t done that before and I think that we should’ve reacted more aggressively to condemn any attack on journalists because that would contribute to safe environment for journalists”. Additionally, regulators could promote and encourage media literacy efforts to help their audience make better distinction between what hate speech is and isn’t, Mandić concluded.

Watch the entire event

The event was supported by IFEX

*Project: Combating Hate Speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina CHAS-BIH.

The aim of the project is to create a network of local, national and international partners/associates who will study hate speech, and transfer this knowledge to media professionals, NGOs and institutional organizations, and young scientists.

Principal investigator of the project: dr. Federico Faloppa (University of Reading). The project is supported by The Global Challenges Research Fund of Great Britain.