When harassment drives female journalists out of newsrooms

Tuesday, September 5th, 2023 10:30 | By
When harassment drives female journalists out of newsrooms
A female journalist. PHOTO/Pexels

When Maureen Nduta, a journalist, joined one of the mainstream media houses in 2015 for her industrial attachment, she was happy. She was ready and willing to learn.

During the first few days in her new workplace, she expected to be given a mentor to guide her, but this never happened. When she asked her immediate boss (a male news editor) about it, she was told that for her to get such priorities, she was supposed to scratch the editor’s back.

“I was young and naïve. I didn’t know the meaning of that phrase. Since I wanted to see my byline in the newspaper, I started writing stories without guidance. But even after going this extra mile, my stories were never published,” she  recalls.

Frustrated by the turn of events, Nduta decided to approach her boss again. He agreed to help her. He asked for her phone number and she willingly gave it to him. After this, she started receiving messages from him.

The messages escalated quickly and obsessively over text and Facebook. It became obvious this wasn’t simply workplace banter. He started requesting for sexual favours for her stories to be published daily. He also promised her a job after the attachment.

“I didn’t give in to his advances. I vowed I would rather back off instead. But I never left the newsroom. I started collaborating with the few female reporters and that is how I survived for the three months I was there,” she says.

Perpetrators and manifestation

That nasty experience saw her hate the attachment workplace and vowed to never go back to any newsroom. So after graduation, she started a business.

Nduta is not the only female journalist who has been harassed in the line of duty. A recent report by the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) shows that female journalists face more harassment than their male counterparts. They face harassment from male supervisors, fellows, news sources, politicians and politicians’ supporters.

“This is why more female than male journalists have resorted to self-censorship, and some have abandoned the profession,” said Charity Komujjurizi, AFIC Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator during the launch of the report in Nairobi.

According to the report dubbed Gendered Dimensions of Journalist’s Safety in Kenya, both male and female journalists consulted had experienced or witnessed a workplace safety breach. The safety issues manifested through surveillance, cyberbullying, sexual harassment and physical attacks. However, female journalists discerned that most issues were explicitly sexist and misogynistic attacks.

Male journalists suffer too

“Male journalists face physical danger, under surveillance and stalking, but female journalists suffer mostly sexual harassment and cyberbullying. Male journalists also witness or experience heightened harassment each time an impactful investigative story is published or broadcasted, especially about shoddy dealings of prominent politicians, business people and state institutions,” reads part of the report.

According to the report, newsrooms and the media in general, are not as welcoming to female journalists as they are to their male colleagues. Though there are attempts by media houses to protect female journalists through in-house rules on harassment, the policies seldom catered to the backlash they faced for reporting their abusers.

“The backlash is primarily attributed to men in newsrooms wielding more power than female journalists. Also, men are predominantly the assigning editors and often the first contact point for young journalists fresh out of school,” adds Charity.

According to her, female journalists were harassed more at the entry level — that is during their industrial placement/internship. Female freelance journalists equally experienced harassment from some assigning male editors, something that has been impairing their careers and exacerbated their financial vulnerability.

It is because of this harassment, some journalists have been watching painfully with stunted careers because a powerful editor stood in their way while colleagues they started journalism with went on to excel. It was also reported that some freelance female journalists are also encouraging flirting as a way of “surviving” in the media.

“This has also made some journalists to be traumatised by the idea of meeting any assigning editors, even one with pure intentions because many of the physical meetings have had elements of harassment,” she shares.

Outside newsrooms, politicians have also been harassing female journalists’ more than male journalists according to the report. Female journalists interviewed reported enduring more intrusive harassment by politicians than their male colleagues. Some female journalists said they had been threatened with rape during campaign rallies by politicians’ supporters who accused them of being used by the opponents.

Curbing the vice

The report recommends that newsrooms should adopt gender-responsive mechanisms. This should involve a deeper analysis of the gender dimension of the safety of journalists from different contexts and perspectives and adopt frameworks that take the lived experiences of journalists seriously, the impact, and aspects related to the safety of female journalists.

“Interventions should be gender-responsive at both individual and organisational levels. Media organisations and intermediaries should also implement mechanisms to guarantee the safety of journalists, especially female journalists. There should be mechanisms to support journalists in speaking up against abuse and safety concerns,” recommends the report.

 The study was commissioned by the AFIC as a follow-up on the AFIC’s 2020 study and recommendations on ‘The Urgent Need to Address Impunity against Freedom of Expression Practitioners in Africa’, which proposed African Union and Member State level interventions to strengthen legislation, implementation, and oversight of the protection of journalists. AFIC is a pan-African membership CSO registered in 2007 in Nigeria and established in 2009 in Uganda.

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