Online harassment against women journalists in the Iranian diaspora

Online harassment against women journalists in the Iranian diaspora - Protection

ARTICLE 19 has published a briefing in collaboration with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) looking into the toxic and often violent space women journalists reporting on Iran inhabit. In March 2021, ARTICLE 19 interviewed a number of women journalists from the Iranian diaspora who cover Iran for various media outlets and who face increased and concerning levels of online harassment and abuse as a result of their work. We hope this brief can be a path for further research for those communities experiencing disproportionate and gendered abuse and violence online.

It should be noted that this report did not interview subjects identifying as trans or non-binary, and thus did not capture a snapshot of their experiences.

“For years, we’ve seen Iranian women journalists targeted for their work, but the increasing trend of authorities and mobs harassing journalists outside the country is extremely disturbing,” said Qunn McKew, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director. “Iranian journalists who face online abuse are not only seeing their work affected, it’s having a huge impact on their lives. The Iranian government must stop its abuse of its journalists inside Iran and in the diaspora, and the international community, including technology companies, must do more to protect journalists around the world.” 

The testimonies in this briefing indicate that the attacks faced online often include but are not limited to direct death threats against them and their families and the dissemination of their personal information (doxing). Many of these forms of online harassment and abuse have a clear sexualised and gender-based pattern. 

Women journalists based in Iran are also frequently subject to other severe forms of discrimination, harassment and —in the case of arrests — torture, sexual assault, and lack of due process. While the severity of the conditions experienced by women journalists inside Iran cannot be compared to the experiences we document of the Iranian women in the diaspora, we argue the risks they face are nonetheless serious and must be prevented.

“Covering Iran, even from outside the country, can be a dangerous beat for any journalist,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator. “For women journalists in exile, the burden of fearing for their lives is amplified by smear campaigns and relentless online abuse. Protection by law enforcement and support from social media platforms are critical for them to carry out their work with any sense of safety.”

In this briefing, ARTICLE 19 aims to bring visibility to the different manifestations of online harassment and abuse against women journalists in the Iranian diaspora, as well as their risks and consequences. Women journalists play a vital role in challenging gender inequality in the media ecosystem. Therefore they must be supported by governments and the media industry, including social media companies, as well as by their colleagues and civil society. 

In their support for journalists, media organisations should not place the full burden of documenting the abuse and harassment on the journalists who face these pressures, and they should work closely with them to ensure the measures they put in place are appropriate and effective. 

We provide a set of recommendations for State actors as part of compliance with their obligation to guarantee women journalists’ right to report and disseminate information and opinions without violence and fear of retaliation. We further set out a series of recommendations for governments, companies and media outlets.   

Read the briefing


 ARTICLE 19’s conversations with women journalists reporting on Iran from the diaspora highlighted the severe impact of online harassment and abuse on women journalists’ rights to freedom of expression and equality, their wellbeing, and that of their families.

 Governments, social media platforms and media houses must take seriously the consequences of this type of abuse, and take action to address it in order to protect freedom of expression and women’s rights online and offline. We therefore set out below a series of specific recommendations to these actors on how to better support women journalists and protect free expression.

We also reiterate our calls on the Iranian government to end its persistent efforts to silence press freedom, to suppress individuals’ right to express themselves online and offline, and to police women’s expression. The wider context of repression by the Iranian state, both within and outside its borders, is a major contributing factor to the risks faced by women journalists reporting on Iran.

Recommendations to social-media platforms:

  •   Provide clearer guidance about and ensure timely and consistent application of their policies on harassment and abusive content, and any other rules that apply to the different forms of online harassment and abuse that women diaspora journalists face.
  • Develop specific sections of their content rules dedicated to this issue explaining what rules are applied, and conduct gender impact assessments in the development of their content rules and policies on implementation to ensure they are responding appropriately and consistently to abuse.
  • Allocate sufficient resources to assess, moderate and respond to threats, harassment and other forms of abuse in the local languages of Iran and in contexts where women journalists face disproportionate online harassment as a result of their journalistic activities, including by hiring more linguistic and cultural-dialect experts to review reports and escalating circumstances that may put women’s journalists’ life at risk. Given that algorithms currently have very limited ability to assess context, they should at the very least ensure human review of content flagged as harmful, such as harassment and abuse.
  • Improve transparency reporting, including publishing detailed information consistent with the Santa Clara Principles about gender-based harassment and abuse. This should not be limited to statistical information regarding removal of content, but should also include data about the number of appeals processed and their outcomes.
  • Provide detailed information on how content rules are applied in practice, in particular with regard to handling gender-based harassment and abuse. This should include providing case studies or more detailed examples of the way in which they apply their policies to gender-based harassment and abuse.
  •   Work closely with women journalists and civil society groups to develop solutions to gender-based harassment and abuse, support journalism initiatives that promote gender inclusion and support efforts to counter narratives against gender equality.

Recommendations to governments:

Under international human-rights law, states must ensure that women fully enjoy both the right to freedom of expression and the right to equality. 

ARTICLE 19 calls in particular on governments — including the United States, Canada, European Union governments and other countries where Iranian diaspora journalists are reporting from—  to take specific measures to support them and tackle online abuse and harassment, including by: 

  •   Publicly, unequivocally and systematically condemn all attacks against journalists, including online harassment and abuse against women journalists.
  •   Recognise that online gender-based harassment and abuse against women journalists in the Iranian diaspora who are targeted for exercising journalism activities is a serious problem and adopt integrated prevention, monitoring, and response mechanisms, including in public policy.
  •  In cases where online gender-based harassment and abuse reach the level of severity prohibited under criminal law, governments must ensure a prompt, expeditious, thorough, diligent and comprehensive investigation is carried out, and that violators are held accountable. To enable this, states should ensure that relevant laws are comprehensive and train law-enforcement actors on states’ international legal obligations and commitments on the safety of journalists.

Recommendations to media organisations:

Media houses should make all possible and available efforts to support women journalists facing online harassment and abuse as a result of their journalistic work. They play a part in challenging gender inequality in the media ecosystem. Therefore, they should:

  • Develop and implement clear guidelines and protocols on preventing and addressing online harassment and abuse against women journalists, including clear reporting mechanisms, security protocols and training, and access to legal and/or psychosocial support. When language represents an obstacle to providing adequate and timely support, additional assistance should be provided for translation and documentation. These measures should be discussed and agreed together with the women journalists facing the harassment and abuse in order to decide what is most efficient and effective for the purposes of preventing and responding to the attacks.  
  • Monitor and document online abuse and harassment of women journalists employed by or working with them to ensure collection of data on this type of abuse that enables prevention measures. Media organisations’ measures should avoid placing on women journalists the full burden and unnecessary additional distress of documenting harassment and abuse onto women journalists.  
  • Seek to promote media diversity and inclusive approaches to the responses they design to confront and prevent online harassment and abuse by recognising and considering the racial, cultural, migratory or any other background of women journalists, including women of all backgrounds in the design of these measures, in the support team, in news and in interviews, and acknowledging the active role of women in political, economic, social and cultural life in coverage, as well as addressing gender bias and stereotypes in reporting, and hiring women journalists to ensure women’s perspectives are reflected in news reporting.

Read the briefing

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