Damage control for journalists

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Not all attacks can be prevented. If you are affected by online aggression:

Document and monitor. Take screenshots or start on a so-called ‘hate journal’, where you can write down the time, place, hateful content and its creators. These materials may be helpful if it comes, for instance, to taking legal action (see below). Monitor the internet using advanced browser features or Web-monitoring tools (Brand24.pl, Google Alerts) set to scan for your name, phone number or other information.

Rebut the accusations or report harmful content. One of your better options is to address the attack on the same communication channel. However, if that channel is exceedingly hostile, you may choose to report it to the website’s or social network’s administrator as soon as possible (e.g. in Poland, if the reported content is found to be against the law, the administrator is obliged to take it down immediately). You can also apply for free help to organizations fighting harmful online content in your country (e.g. in Poland Dyżurnetu or HejtStop – search their websites for instructional videos explaining how to report harassment). They might prove exceptionally helpful if the administrator ignores your complaint.

Answer or block. When hateful content appears e.g. on your social media profile, there is no one universal strategy to neutralize the attack, so adjust your reaction to the circumstances. Sometimes it is enough to address the accusations in order to construct a counternarrative (preferably with assistance of others, see below). At other times, when there is no chance of an informed discussion, it is better to ignore the hater (following the rule of ‘not feeding the troll’). However, in some instances – especially when the attack is extremely brutal – the only option is to block the attacker. Hateful and manipulated stories targeted at journalists are oftentimes a part of coordinated campaigns employing social media bots or fake accounts. Exposing them may help you block them and further defend yourself.

Do not hesitate to ask for support. Make sure to inform your editorial board and its lawyers. Consider telling your family that you have become a target of persecution before they find out about it from outside sources. Also, do not forget about your co-workers and acquaintances – dealing with online attack on your own might prove exhausting. Ask others for support. If you have such options, consider involving people around you in monitoring and documenting the attacks, reporting hateful content and taking matters to court. Above all, however, put them in touch with your haters. Appeal to your readers to come to your aid. Be aware that Internet violence victims, especially when continuously exposed to a barrage of hate, pay real price in their private lives; they can experience depressive mood swings, depression, anxiety disorders and more. If any of the above applies to you, think about consulting a specialist.

Exert your ‘right to be forgotten’ in the search results. If someone unlawfully publishes information about you, you have the right to request from the search engine providers that they remove the links to those publications after your personal data was typed into the search bar. That does not mean that unwanted content will disappear from the Web, but it will be much harder to access and there is a chance that when researching your person, people will not stumble upon malicious manipulation. If a search engine operator declines your request, you are entitled to file a complaint to the Data Protection Authority in your country. Do not forget – you should not use the right to be forgotten to cover up inconvenient facts about yourself.

Take legal steps. Depending on the nature of the harmful content online, you can refer to:

criminal law (such as hate speech, stalking, insult or defamation laws). In case of pubic prosecution crimes all you need to do is to report it to your local police who should then investigate the case; or/and civil law (such as libel or image rights); or/and data protection law (in the EU – GDPR and domestic data protection laws – in case of misuse of your personal data on the Internet you can seek help from your national Data Protection Authority).

The State’s Responsibility: Effectively Protecting Journalists

Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismailova is known for her uncompromising efforts to reveal the abuse of power by public servants in her country. She was recorded in an intimate situation with her partner. The authors of the recording threatened to post it online if the journalist continued to work on publications concerning a corruption scandal allegedly involving people connected to the government. Ismailova did not cave and instead decided to publicize this instance of blackmail in order to prepare the public opinion for the eventual disclosure (in the end, the recording made its way to the Internet) and to notify the police.

Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies failed to identify the perpetrator and the journalist had to seek justice in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Court accused the Azerbaijani government of not conducting a proper investigation and declared that it did not take sufficient action to protect the journalist’s right to privacy, as well as her freedom of speech (considering that the blackmail was calculated to discourage her from continuing her journalistic investigation). The journalist received a compensation of 15,000 euros. Therefore, through this verdict, the Court has confirmed that it falls on government agencies to protect the media employees from attacks (including those perpetrated online) and to employ adequate measures in investigating the circumstances in all such instances.

Opinii ENG