Pressures on freedom of expression


It would be nearly impossible to exhaustively list the ways in which someone can put pressure on and threaten freedom of expression. Those who have been targeted with online pressure or abuse will undoubtedly feel its consequences.

For the broader public, we can see these threats everywhere - from commenting threads, social media platforms, and increasing hate speech and intentional defamation.  It has been nearly impossible to legally qualify perceived ‘pressure’, as it rarely meets legal thresholds, but in targeting journalists and activists, it causes serious distortions in and to public debate and decision-making.

When this type of pressure is top-down - coming directly from public figures, politicians, or others in power (employers, editors), it can have a multiplier effect on the spread and resulting effects on the target. Even if perceived as a form of micro-aggression, long-term consequences are hard and prevent,  not only for the target, but also for the general public and media ecosystem.

For some who have been targeted with online violence, instead of moving away from online participation, they chose to respond with more speech and more engagement. Speaking openly about an experience of online abuse (in addition to utilizing institutional or alternative mechanisms of protection), can be helpful for several reasons. Naming and shaming your abuser and exposing them to public scrutiny can also be a mechanism of protection, helping you regain a sense of control and empowerment in helping others in similar experiences, and raises public awareness about digital violence. As the broader public learns the extent and scope of online abuse, they will recognize its negative effects on society and, hopefully, demand a response from State officials. If you chose this path, try to focus on sharing your experience and the personal and community impacts of an assault.

During the COVID pandemic, critical reporting about our governments’ work and health services has become even more important for the public, and, in many cases, more problematic for governments interested in suppressing information. These methods of suppression have been so egregious, that if not for the real danger they pose to public interest, they could even be deemed laughable.

All journalists and media workers can report violence to an official Journalists’ Association, even if they aren’t members. These associations can provide information and advice on how to file criminal charges, and other suggestions for dealing with and overcoming online harassment. Even if you decide not to report the crime to the police, consider informing the Journalists Association or relevant CSOs about the incident. This information is valuable for them to learn more about online violence, and to later use this data for advocacy purposes and, ideally, change. Associations often have resources and services, including mental health support or legal counseling that smaller media organizations or freelance journalists can’t easily access. Several CSOs have developed expertise after years of work combating online violence, and can offer valuable information and assistance.

A number of international organizations have specifically addressed the importance of and obstacles to the safety of journalists and human rights defenders: Council of Europe/Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, OSCE Mission to Belgrade, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, UNESCO Safety of journalists programmes. For those cases lacking State support, these organizations can bring attention to the case, advocate for change and put pressure on State authorities.

Some organizations provide financial aid and/or legal services for journalists targeted with violence, including Media Defence in London or Free Press Unlimited, based in Amsterdam (they also offer a rapid response service). In situations where the scope and scale of violence threatens physical safety, these organizations can provide relocation assistance until the situation calms down.

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