Meeting report from the webinar “Gender Equality in Media Regulation and Self Regulation – in theory and practice” convened by Fojo Media Institute and the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD).
The webinar was centred around knowledge exchange and provided a space for discussion on how media regulation can support gender equality in and through the media. The webinar included speakers from Fojo Media Institute (Fojo), International Media Support (IMS), International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), and WAN-IFRA.
Over the course of the webinar, presenters drew on their varied experiences, speaking on various studies, declarations, and policy briefs they have participated in or drawn on within their own work. In addition to the presentations, topics highlighted during the final discussion included:
“It will be very difficult to impose by law certain obligations in order to force equal gender representation in media entities or regulatory bodies, but the adoption of voluntary codes of conduct, self-regulation codes of ethics are of fundamental importance to protect, or to promote gender equality and women’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression.” -Joan Barata Mir, Media Law Expert, Stanford Cyber Policy Centre
The webinar addressed holistically the state of gender equality in media regulation. Firstly, the presentation of Fojo Media Institute’s global study on Gender Equality and Media Regulation, showcased the state of play of gender integration in media policy and legislation across the world. One of the key issues identified was that regulation in isolation is not sufficient to achieve gender equality goals; other tools must be applied, such as gender-sensitive national protection mechanisms to address threats to safety of women journalists.
Online violence was identified as one of the main issues disproportionately targeting women journalists. Research by the ICFJ revealed that online violence causes severe psychological harm to women journalists, leads them to self-censor and silences their voices. Currently, an international formal regulatory framework on online violence against women and women journalists, does not yet exist. There is a need to see and to recognize online violence as gendered and systemic and to underline the responsibility of states to protect women’s right to freedom of expression.
The webinar also addressed practical experiences from organisations working with media outlets and their staff to close the disconnect between the experience of sexual harassment and violence, and the understanding and the actions that are taken by media organizations. Thus, highlighting the importance of training and the sensitization of all media workers at all levels.
Speakers highlighted how gender equality is both a principle and a basic human right necessary for democracy, which also converges with the right to freedom of expression and opinion, the right to access information and the right to non-discrimination on any basis. For that reason, it is important to understand how, and to what extent, gender equality is integrated in media policy and law across the world. In response to this need, Fojo Media Institute conducted research aimed at mapping and analysing how gender equality is integrated in the regulatory frameworks (policy and law) of almost 200 countries. The Gender Equality and Media Regulation (GMR) global study was carried out in collaboration with Fojo’s partners in six countries where the Institute is active: Armenia, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Somalia, Sweden and Zimbabwe. The study focused on the different levels of policy, ranging from supranational to national/statutory, to industry levels. The typology developed from the frameworks that were studied presented three types of approaches to supranational policymaking on gender and media:
“Gender equality, freedom of expression and media freedom and independence are not mutually exclusive. All are protected in international standards.” - Sarah Macharia, Fojo Media Institute, GMR study lead researcher.
GMR study co-researcher and media law expert from Stanford Cyber Policy Centre Joan Barata Mir gave an example of the findings from Zimbabwe. While the country has a good legislative framework concerning gender equality and women’s empowerment, building implementation capacity in media houses is necessary to transcend policy adoption and enable monitoring of the efficiency of gender policies.
“What counts as good practice is not always clear or easily apparent, I think clarity on what a good practice is, has to come from its outcomes and impact over the medium and long term.” - Sarah Macharia, Fojo Media Institute, GMR study lead researcher.
While there exist various intersections between freedom of expression and gender equality, both of which are universal human rights, protected by international legal instruments, the two must be understood and interpreted in a complementary manner. States are obliged not to interfere in the (media’s) freedom of expression while also creating effective conditions for full gender equality.
Barata pointed out that restrictions to women’s freedom of expression come also from interpretations of culture, religion and traditions that subordinate women, thus creating a need for policy-making to take into account these additional bottlenecks. He explained as well that , “The right to access to information (ATI) is a key element for women’s empowerment and agency, especially when it concerns information on issues of particular relevance to women such as t reproductive rights
The right to freedom of expression is not absolute; it is tempered by and co-exists with other rights enshrined in policy. For example, gendered hate speech can be banned and criminalised when it meets certain conditions such as inciting violence. Where legal restrictions cannot be applied, different measures such as education, workplace policy, and training of journalists.
“At the end of the day, it's not all about law, there are certain legal implications, but law and policy need to complement each other in order to have proper enforcement or properly protect gender equality without disproportionately interfering with media freedom.” - Joan Barata Mir, Media Law Expert, Stanford Cyber Policy Centre
During her discussion on online harassment against women journalists, Flora Schulte Nordholt, Policy and Advocacy Officer for Free Press Unlimited, spoke on the importance of defining certain conduct. From a legal perspective, by doing so, you “delineate and demarcate the behaviour that you want to address, which is not only extremely important for further regulation for states, but also sends an important signal that demonstrates consensus at the international level, on the severity of online harassment, which is very much needed. Because at this moment, not one single country has developed a comprehensive framework to address online harassment.” By creating policies for issues such as online harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace, and ensuring that staff are aware and knowledgable of these policies, we can begin to effectively combat gender inequality from the ground up.
When it comes to effective legislation, a prime example comes from Pakistan which passed the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Act (2021) and within it, established the “Independent Commission for the Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals”. This legal and institutional framework, as highlighted by Colette Wahlqvist, the Global Safety Advisor for International Media Support, “embodies a multi-stakeholder approach to journalists’ safety” by making it mandatory to include a diverse set of voices in decisions.
Different participants highlighted that the issues regarding the safety of women journalists all fall under broader issues of the general safety of journalists. Colette S. Wahlqvist stated that within the “business of protecting journalists, the legal framework is not the only piece of the puzzle”:
“The safety of female journalists is part of the bigger problem of safety of journalists, something that needs to be considered in order to provide the proper protection to women when exercising the right to freedom of expression.” Colette S. Wahlqvist, Global Safety Advisor for International Media Support
“No single actor alone can keep journalists safe. So, with all of the solid regulation, strong legal framework, this alone is not the answer.” - Colette Wahlqvist, Global Safety Advisor for International Media Support
When it comes to targeting these gendered issues within the safety of journalists, it will take more than state protection alone, as indicated in the UN Plan of Action. Instead, according to Wahlqvist, we must look beyond policymakers and the government, working with media associations, to include prosecutors, police, the psychosocial and mental health and well-being sectors and human rights institutes. By “bringing civil society and governments together,” we can build strong national protection mechanisms for journalists. Given how contextual these situations are, there is a need to constantly monitor and report, build capacity, and create a different plan for every environment.
“This is a component that can take shape with safety training, legal aid, mental health support, hotlines, and many other shapes and forms, but that's the key. They come in different shapes and forms, because it's all very contextual, you have to look at where the threats are coming from, to develop a national journalist safety mechanism. So, there is no singular blueprint, there is no one size fits all solution.” -Colette Wahlqvist, Global Safety Advisor for International Media Support
Lady Ann Salem, IAWRT Communications Officer, highlighted the work done by the Digital Safe House (DHS) where she acted as project lead. Salem explained that “the project came from a bigger idea of establishing a global digital safe house and it became more imperative to do it during my arrest and the situation in Afghanistan.” There exists a need to better understand what is behind situations such as those in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Yemen, and Haiti because, despite years within the profession, many seem to be “grasping at straws not knowing right away who they are working with or where to turn.”
As a platform, the DHS campaigns around journalists, providing support in conversations and protection on social media platforms. It can be popularised to engage women journalists and their partners. Salem emphasised that as journalists, “we are used to report about other things, but not about ourselves.” In general, journalists are not used to seeking help, or dealing with safety issues, “so we usually just brush [these issues] aside and continue with our work unless we experience the more extreme cases.” However, there exists a need to tackle these issues through platforms such as the DHS and provide support internationally.
One of the most prominent effects of violence towards journalists, especially female journalists today is online harassment. But this type of online violence has a gendered component since it targets women journalists. Joan Barata Mir explained that the threats and comments female journalists receive on social media refer to their condition as women. This gendered online violence includes rape threats and other forms of harassment and consists of content which wouldn’t be expressed if the journalists were not women.
According to recent research, 73% of women journalists experience online violence with 20% of these attacks leading to real, offline violence, known as the spill-over effect. Flora Schulte Nordholt, the Policy and Advocacy Officer of Free Press Unlimited, stated that online harassment disproportionately targets women journalists, leading to severe psychological harm including isolation, loneliness, an absence of support, and severe overall mental health effects.
“Apart from the direct harm to these women, online violence is also indirectly leading women to self-censor, or even driving them completely off social media. Sometimes even the threat of this violence alone is enough to achieve this effect. So, these chilling effects and the silencing of voices in the broader context is seriously affecting our public discourse.” -Flora Nordholt, Policy and Advocacy Officer of Free Press Unlimited
“There's a huge power imbalance between the platforms on the one hand, that often facilitate this online harassment, and users, such as women journalists, on the other hand, and in practice, we really see that these platforms only respond to one big common united voice” -Flora Nordholt, Policy and Advocacy Officer of Free Press Unlimited
Online harassment is a particularly pernicious form of violence, that can take a variety of forms. It can come in insults and threats, cyber stalking or online impersonation, it can be completely orchestrated by political groups or mobs, but it can also be carried out by lone wolves. Nordholt emphasised that this is why clearly defining and demarcating such conduct is so important to tackling the issue.
A completely free and open internet can become a dangerous place that excludes certain voices. Exclusion or silencing of voices such as those of women, minorities, or LGBTQI+ communities reserves participation in public debate to a small group, often white and male. Social media and the internet without protection mechanisms for the most vulnerable groups is in fact not a “free internet for all” as the right of freedom of expression is limited to the privileged few.
With regard to overcoming barriers of gender discrimination, especially in the workplace, training is undeniably of the utmost importance. It is through training that individuals are not only exposed to the experiences of others but can also acquire the tools necessary for creating a safe and just space for all. Melanie Walker and Jane Godia, the Executive Director for Media Development at WAN-IFRA and the Africa Director for Women in News (WiN), respectively, gave an in-depth description of the work being done by the WAN-IFRA WiN program. Working with over 80 different media partners, the program has trained over 4,000 journalists and editors on sexual harassment, gender equality, and all issues that fall within these realms. The program aims to close the gender gap in the news media industry and actively conducts research alongside the training.
“There was a real disconnect in terms of that recognition of there being a problem within their newsroom within the industry. There is a general perception that still lingers that this is a problem that existed 20 years ago, but no longer today. And of course, we have the results showing that is very much the opposite of the truth.” - Melanie Walker, Executive Director for Media Development at WAN-IFRA
The research findings from WAN-IFRA have helped create a base that has served as a platform for advocacy and training work. Training has proved pivotal in promoting advocacy around unfair practices and gender inequality and enabled participants to change their working environments. For example, training with a media group in Kenya revealed that some participants were not aware that sexual harassment was taking place. A sexual harassment policy had been developed and published on the website, however, staff were not made aware. By the end of the training, the staff fully understood the policy and were able to act on it.
“Sexual harassment happens in all spaces, whether one works in a big media house or a small one.” - Jane Godia, Africa Director for Women in News (WiN)
It is imperative that training targets all staff, management, and individuals in the workplace. Furthermore, it is important that all types of organisations, corporations, and groups undergo such training. The experiences of WAN-IFRA WiN have indicated success in separating managers from the junior staff. When both groups are brought in together, the latter is less likely to speak out, but by having them go in separately, the Women in News initiative has gained “traction in terms of getting people to speak out, getting people to say what their problem is, and also getting the managers to understand, to ensure that sexual harassment is addressed,” as highlighted by Godia.
Moving forward, making such training mandatory in the workplace will help support a shift in what is acceptable and how sexual harassment and gender inequality are dealt with. By creating awareness at all levels, from the executives to junior employees, we can ensure that there are witnesses everywhere, someone to speak up when they see something unjust occurring. There is an ongoing and increasing importance of training and sensitisation of all media workers on all levels. As illustrated by Sarah Macharia, only then can we “close that disconnect between the experiences of sexual harassment and violence, and the understanding and actions that are taken by media organizations.”
Further research is needed to fill the knowledge gaps and point direction on how the weak integration of gender equality dimensions in media policy and law may be addressed.
The Online Coalition established by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) has created practical tools and collaboration in research and joint advocacy. Each of these motions are timely and necessary, contributing to an overall movement towards a better understanding of the different challenges and how to overcome them.
In countries with limited resources and capacity to contribute to such data collection and reporting, there exists a need for support, according to Maria Edström, Senior Lecturer, Department of Journalism, Media and Communication (University of Gothenburg) There needs to be systematic reporting about harassment, the forms it takes and the spaces in which it occurs, in order to understand the patterns. All of this contributes to increased learning and the development of methods to support fighting for gender equality.
In conclusion, media regulation is influenced by and interacts with attitudes and practices in the society and culture in which media operate. This is especially true for issues regarding gender equality and diversity.