Digital Harassment Impairs Press Freedom

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Namrata Sharma

As the world is heading towards a digitalised system where information and services are available online, digital safety has become more and more important. Be it on the reliability of the information people access through online portals, or the services including online shopping, online banking, online dating, online marriages and almost all activities related to the people’s lifestyles and livelihoods, the quality of life is now very much dependent on the digital portals that are created every day to cater to the needs of individuals. As technology is advancing so is the knowledge of how to track people and their wants and needs to cater to their requirements. At the same time as services are being provided online there are smart individuals who have developed technologies on how to track and harass individuals leading to an increase in cybercrimes daily all over the world. 

Freedom Forum Nepal (FFN), an organisation working on issues related to free press in Nepal, recently conducted a study on the urgency of digital safety to Nepali Journalists. Its report, published last month, sheds important facts especially as Nepal too has advanced together with the global trend in seeking information and services digitally. The people in both the urban and rural parts of Nepal have now started using the internet services for both personal and professional activities. According to the Nepal Telecommunication Authority’s MIS report published in March 2022, the total internet penetration has reached 65 per cent of the total population out of which about 98.42 per cent is from mobile broadband. 

New challenges 

According to the Press Council Nepal (PCN), over 3,000 online news portals have been with PCN. As the media in Nepal is moving towards the digital space from the traditional mode, the people are benefitting from the global digital access. However, this has created new challenges and threats for the working journalists which now need to be addressed. The FFN has recorded several incidents of threats targeted against online media and journalists. Their latest annual press freedom report states that 40 per cent of the press freedom violations recorded during the year 2021 was targeted against online media. 

The FFN report states that out of 10 journalists, seven have faced some forms of harassments online and female journalists are vulnerable to sexual harassment on the digital space. The report was based on responses from 100 respondents out of which 34 per cent were female. In order to ensure digital safety to journalists, identification of and developing skills to counter threats are necessary. The FFN report has indicated the urgency of digital literacy and digital safety to Nepali journalists. The survey suggests a need to create safe digital spaces for all citizens.

With the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media has been affected in several ways. The traditional media have been forced to shift towards online portals. With the negative financial impact on working journalists, the report also mentions that journalists are now working in more than one media thus being prone to more risks and attacks. The industry is dominated by mid-career journalists who use several devices like the computer, mobile, and laptop for their profession. The report mentions that 51 per cent of the respondents use all these devices while 22 per cent use laptops, 14 per cent computers and 13 per cent use mobiles. While it is a positive fact that journalists have access to these device for their work, it is important to note that their risk of digital trolling and harassment can increase if they are not aware of the safety measures they need to apply. 

The FFN reports that the Nepali journalists apply minimum protection measures like strong password, reliable anti-virus software, lock email and files, and not allow others to use their devices to prevent digital threats. The concept in the majority of the Nepali journalists that they could be prone to digital threats is still lacking and many do not apply the basic requirements that are especially important for investigative journalists. FFN reports that their respondents showed a lack of advance digital safety knowledge like use of VPN, two-factor authentication and other measures. Around 10 per cent respondents said that had not received training on digital safety while the majority did not apply it even if they had been trained on it. This could be a behaviour which could put them at risk of digital harassments and crimes against different aspects of freedom of press. 

The FFN’s gender disaggregated data shows that 76 per cent of the male respondents experienced digital threats in comparison to 47 per cent female respondents. Sexual harassment is faced by the majority of the female journalists both online and offline. The report concludes that most of the Nepali journalists have faced digital threats in one form or another. It also mentions that harassments and defamations are the most common forms of digital threats they face. 

Red alert

The culture of reporting the harassments, faced by journalists, is still lacking and even if they do report there is delayed or no justice. The state of impunity thus discourages journalists in reporting the harassments and threats they face.  The FFN’s report raises a red alert that if journalists who are perceived to be an aware group of professionals do not report the digital crimes that they face, other individuals, especially the general public, probably are not even aware that their rights are being violated.

The report also mentions that those journalists who have reported to at least their friends or to legal authorities still have not started adopting proper measures of keeping safe from digital misappropriations even after being victimised. This could lead to self-censorship which affects the good health of freedom of press in Nepal. 

(Namrata Sharma is a journalist and women rights advocate. namrata1964@yahoo.com Twitter handle: @NamrataSharmaP ) 

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