#MeToo: A unique moment in journalism?

Set in motion by the Weinstein revelations, the #MeToo movement has empowered women around the world to discuss the extent and prevalence of sexual abuse they experience in the workplace. But how does #MeToo relate to women working in journalism? Rana Ayyub, Fatemah Farag, and Julie Posetti discussed the topic on the third day of the GEN Summit, in a session moderated by Dianna Pierce Burgess.

Rana Ayyub, Julie Posetti, Fatemah Farag, and Dianna Pierce Burgess © Rainer Mirau for GEN

‘First, let’s be clear. This is not a gender issue: this is a human rights issue.’ This opening statement by the moderator Dianna Pierce-Burgess, co-founder of Press Forward, set the tone for the conversation that followed.

Pierce-Burgess emphasised that the Me Too movement was really about issues that went beyond sexual abuse, especially the abuse of power, which women around the world are now challenging: ‘The collective women’s voices have had the courage to say enough.’

But what are the connections between #MeToo and women working in the news media? And what can we learn from their experiences?

Surfacing the problem

The most immediate consequence of the movement is the fact that it has made it possible for people to put the issue of harassment on the agenda, said Fatemah Farag, founder and director at Welad Elbalad Media LTD in Egypt. This has allowed the discussion to move on to finding solutions to the problem.

Julie Posetti, senior research fellow at Oxford University, agreed that thanks to #MeToo, more and more women feel they can come forward about the abuse they have experienced, when previously stories were only shared in close circles, mainly among women.

But although the movement has had a huge impact in some parts of the world, there are countries where it hasn’t had similar momentum. And in the media, inequality can amplify the issue: if the reality in a country is that there’s one woman to 100 men working in news media, women are always struggling to show they are good at their work, ‘You have to prove that you are a man times one hundred,’ Farag said.

Attacks driven by an agenda

What about abuse as a reaction to journalism? A powerful illustration of how violent it can be was provided by Rana Ayyub, investigative journalist and columnist from India.

Rana Ayyub

Following months of online harassment, attacks against her on social media escalated radically this April. First, quotations that were falsely attributed to her were distributed widely on Twitter. This was followed by a pornographic video that spread on various WhatsApp groups, where her face had been morphed onto another woman. Soon Ayyub’s social media feeds were flooded with screenshots of the video.

Then, a tweet with her name, picture, phone number and address was widely shared, resulting in a flood of messages from men including their naked photos. (Read her New York Times article about the experience for the full account.)

Those two weeks of successive online harassment took their toll, ‘I’m not ashamed to say that I crumbled’.

The attacks didn’t come from out of nowhere, she said: several Indian female journalists who have been critical of the Hindu nationalist politics have found themselves as targets of a social media campaign. ‘This was done with an agenda’.

Had the attacks made her consider leaving the country, Pierce-Burgess asked. This was the goal of the campaign, Ayyub considered. ‘But I believe in the journalism I do,’ she said. ‘People in my country who are watching: I won’t give you the satisfaction of leaving.’

The statement was followed by a standing ovation from the Summit audience.

Working towards solutions

Drawing on Ayyub’s experiences, Posetti said that online attacks need to be taken as seriously as physical attacks. She also stressed that newsrooms need to have strategies that protect their journalists, and that work is needed to educate newsrooms on the issue.

Fatemah Farag

Farag pointed out that what complicates the situation is that there is no shared understanding as to what sexual harassment is. A clear definition would be needed for women to understand the issue better and to report it when it happens.

What can the international media do to support women who are subjected to a campaign of hatred? Ayyub’s view was that the priority should be on understanding the problem first, before asking for international help. ‘I have a voice, a social media presence, and could write an article in the New York Times. But there are a lot of journalists in rural India who don’t have that reach.’

Although technology has in many ways permitted abuse to reach a new level of intensity, it can also help women rally together, make connections and get support from others, Pierce-Burgess said.

As for what journalists can do to combat abuse, Posetti advised them to focus on what they already do best: telling human stories. ‘Storytelling is fundamental to empathy, even among the most reluctant audience.’