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Katharine Sarikakis

Women and Words: hate speech against women who speak

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” was never meant to dismiss the power of words. The focus of the proverb is not the perpetrator. Rather it refers to the power of the spirit, the power of the survivor, the power of the harassed, assaulted, attacked, ostracised, vilified, victimised, excluded, marginalised. This is the power to not be broken, the power to get up and get moving on.


Words are powerful as language constructs our reality, assigns meaning to experience and legitimises the point of view and the weight of experience. Words shape our brains and affect our emotions. Words cement what sticks and stones can do – and very often do their job. Women have historically had a difficult experience with words: not only have women been excluded from making and working with words- one needs nothing further but to remind oneself of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own- but for those who dare to speak in public and in particular about difficult topics, they are met with hating words. Two out of three journalists, according to the recent UNESCO survey announced on World Press Freedom Day, report having been subjected to verbal and online harassment.


Words reflect the lack of tolerance 

Is it perhaps an indicator of the advancement of public debate that across the world civil society and social movements push legislators to take a close look at the impact of words? Hate speech has come to encompass, in some times blurry ways, the lack of tolerance and recognition. Despite the sometimes messiness of pinpointing with clinical precision what hate speech is, it is worth reminding ourselves that it cannot but be a messy concept, as it evolves through time, is often culture specific and changes to reflect what societies deem acceptable or not.

Across the world, hate speech does not “translate” in the same manner: for some regions, such as Latin America or some African countries, it is considered as unhelpful, too emotional, not concrete enough. In other regions, such as the USA, it might seen as a right to free speech per se, until and unless it evokes physical violence. In the European area, it has been connected to the culture of physical and symbolic annihilation perpetuated under the Nazi and fascist regimes, against specific groups but has now expanded to include the harm that words do to the human dignity of any person on the basis of their social markers.  It translates into verbal abuse, threats, sexual harassment, bullying, slander and character assassination.


Women journalists face discrimination in all aspects of their work

Women journalists have long been facing discrimination and ridicule in their work, ever since the first attempts to break the glass ceiling. Several decades of academic studies into the profession and the status of women in mass media and journalism, from women’s professional standing to women’s place in the media industries’ decision-making positions, show repeatedly the excruciatingly slow progress in women gaining and maintaining legitimacy, protection and acceptance:

From working conditions, salary discrepancies and precarity, imbalance in areas reporting, their minority status in leadership positions, their marginalisation within news content, as well as the impact of intersectionality on women’s status in the industry’s production processes and content are painstakingly monitored and analysed by ground-breaking studies such as those by Rush et al in the 70s and then again thirty years later all the way to the 2021 Dorer et al publication.


Studies repeatedly prove structural imbalances

These academic studies run in parallel with studies commissioned by UNESCO and WACC and other organisations detailing a story that keeps repeating itself, year after year “some progress is made, but discrimination persists”.

We have been talking in depth to women journalists in the Central and Eastern Europe region who have been subjected to online harassment for the things they wrote. We spoke to freelancers and ‘celebrity’ journalists in stable positions, to younger and more established ones and they all report similar experiences.

They all point to both the structural imbalances of the media system, which perpetuates a culture of judgement or trivialisation, from chief editors who are well meaning but uninformed and incapable of providing proper support to downright lack of any sensitisation on the matter.


Fear makes women more quiet

Some say, at the aftermath of attacks, they decided to withdraw from reporting what they feel is important and change the subject of their writings to something less contentious; They say they will not be writing about feminism or politics or exercise critique to public (male) figures as this attracts hate; Others decided to talk about the hate they receive and expose it, thereby becoming even more public. Some said they are afraid for their physical safety, a few withdrew completely from the job, others withdrew their data from the public domain.

This is not necessarily news to all, as women in the public eye know only too well that attacks do not target their arguments, but their person. Hate speech and online harassment are forms of violence which aim at the annihilation of women and what they have to say from the public eye. They aim at sending women back to their “place” which is the private sphere, the sphere away from the public debate and this not new but newsworthy nevertheless.

Our interviewees told us that it is always personal, that attacks spill over to physical threats and physical actions, but until a physical act is committed, they cannot expect the protection of the state. One said, she would have to go into writing about “lipstick, as it this doesn’t seem to bother anyone”. Another said relying on the police or their managers is a lottery. The UNESCO study, as well as the Guardian study some years back, looked into online comments providing numbers to the reality women know only too well in their everyday lives: violence is always gender based, personal, sexual and can move frighteningly easily from the symbolic to the material, from the ‘abstract’ to the concrete,  from the online to the offline worlds.


Verbal and physical abuse – the numbers just match

Is it a coincidence that the numbers of violence against women, from harassment to rape to murder reflect the numbers of verbal and online harassment and abuse? Words legitimise a culture where violence against women and in particular against women who dare to act as witnesses, who dare to deliver their testimonies about this world. Women’s words bother. Vocal, visible, public women bother the most. The assault against women journalists however should not be taken as a separate, unfortunate isolated matter, the same way no violent incident against a woman or a girl should be taken or reported as an isolated event. It is a matter of violating human rights, the democratic system, perpetuates exclusion, reinforced discrimination and robs humanity of its future.

Does this sound too ‘dramatic’ – perhaps ‘hysteric” a term so often used against women when voicing grievances? The numbers are there and show that the normality of women’s lives continues to be one plagued by violence. The analysis is there to show exactly how. But also, the world of journalism, the mature democracies of the West included, shows beyond a shadow of the doubt that the systematic processes of undermining and delegitimising the credibility and standing of journalists, the increase in assault, killings and silencing around the world deprive societies from their future.

Attacks against women journalists are not only attacks against journalists, but attacks against the very project of emancipation and equality for all girls and women. From the freedom to speak and express oneself in the schoolyard to the right to protest, run for office, lead, exercise critique and question the status quo to voicing one’s personal experience in what is often deemed ‘private’ as a matter of social and public concern.

Countering hate speech, abuse and online harassment cannot be left alone to the strength of the survivor and equally it cannot be fought alone with campaigns.

Everyone and every company and everyone in position of power should be part of the protection of the free speech of women.


  • Who is Who

Katharine Sarikakis is professor of Media Governance and Media Industries at the University of Vienna. She held the Santander Chair of Excellence in 2018 in Carlos III Universidad Madrid, the Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration and Media Governance until 2019 and is currently the Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence FREuDe.

Katharine has chaired the Council of Europe Committee on the Quality of Journalism, in recent years. She has led several reports on the safety of journalists, including a global methodological and monitoring clearing meta database on killed journalists, which is free and open to use for all NGOs. She consults with international organisations and national governments on media industries and press freedoms and is twice awarded for her solution-driven real world research and teaching.

Currently she is working on issues of integration and news, as well as AI and digital literacies and privacy with focus on children as emerging citizens.


[First published 3/5/2021]

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