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Four panelists on the stage at the launch of the Jordanian Network to Combat Digital Violence Against Female Journalists.

MENA: Female Journalists Organize Against Online Violence

Jordanian female journalists have formed a network to confront digital gender-based violence (GBV) in their profession. They’re building on an idea developed with the Foundation’s Salam@ initiative.

For women working in media across the Middle East and North America, the Internet has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, female journalists are using digital tools to surmount old barriers and grow their impact. But cyberspace also exposes them to new forms of gender-based violence that can stoke fear, hurt mental health and instil professional caution.

That’s why, in Jordan, a group of female journalists is coming together to push back. On November 30, they launched the Jordanian Network Combatting Digital Violence Against Female Journalists. Already, among Jordan’s  400 or so female journalists, 128 are network members. And according to the network’s founding coordinator Rania Sarayreh—herself a widely-recognized journalist—this group intends to make a lasting impact.

While the network will naturally be a venue for empathetic peer support, it also aims to promote wider change. Members will be able to support each other in writing about digital GBV, more often and in more depth. They are also looking to lead on research that can support policy-level advocacy with industry and government.

Salam@: Supporting resilient leaders and good ideas

The network’s November 30 launch event in Amman was hosted by the Foundation’s Salam@ initiative, alongside the Information and Research Centre of the King Hussein Foundation (IRC-KHF). And the network flows out of another trailblazing initiative that the two long standing partners delivered together earlier this year.

In May, they assembled a strategic cohort of 18 Jordanian women, including lawyers, journalists and community leaders. A similar cohort took shape in Tunisia. The objective: to empower these highly engaged women to lead responses to digital GBV in their own spheres of influence.

Each cohort benefitted from a four-month capacity-strengthening program. That started with an intensive “bootcamp” in the fundamentals of digital resilience. That covered everything from recognizing and responding to online risks to delving into the legal and psychosocial context of digital GBV. Next came weeks of workshops and webinars with experts on various dimensions of digital GBV. And finally: small-group sessions where participants strategized ways to make an impact as leaders and advocates. This is where ideas like the Jordanian journalists’ network started to take shape.

One of the program’s advisors, Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf, stressed that this project has pioneered work on digital GBV in the region. “We have created a movement and a community of practice. The starting point was for female journalists to recognize that what they are facing online is violence and then, as community leaders, to do what it takes to stop it.”

Part of the crowd at the launch of the Jordanian Network to Combat Digital Violence Against Female Journalists

Launching the Network Combating Digital Violence Against Female Journalists, November 30.

Digital technology: double-edged sword

Across the Middle East and North Africa, like everywhere else, the Internet is transforming journalism. Women, certainly, are using digital tools to surmount old barriers and thrive in a traditionally male profession. As story-chasers or opinion writers, they’re accessing new sources and social spaces where they once felt unsafe. They’re finding new opportunities for professional development and peer support. They’re growing their voices through wider media markets online.

But all of this comes with a sinister side. Moving into cyberspace exposes female journalists to proliferating tactics of online gender-based violence (GBV). That can mean everything from anonymous hateful messages to invasive public doxing, where people’s personal information is leaked online. Women can find themselves subjected to public shaming online—sometimes based on deepfake photos and videos that appear to show them in blasphemous contexts.

In short, digital technologies that empower female journalists can also be weaponized against them. The Internet offers victimizers a potent combination of anonymity and easy mass distribution. And strong, capable women—like journalists excelling in their craft—too often become favoured targets.

In a recent Salam@ survey of 201 Jordanian woman journalists, more than half said they’d experienced digital GBV. And at the network’s launch event, participants shared stories about online violence eroding their sense of personal and family safety, and with it, their mental health. Lina Momani, Salam@’s national coordinator in Jordan, said female journalists too often “walk this path alone” and aren’t helped by “weak laws that deter digital violence, or those which govern journalistic work.”

In Jordan, the encouraging news is that the women who are changing the face of journalism will no longer have to walk this path alone.