A ‘hotline’ offers women journalists in Iraq protection in a hazardous environment
Like many of their counterparts around the world, or maybe even more, Iraqi women journalists find themselves practicing their profession in a particularly hazardous environment. In addition to being targeted as journalists, they also face specific threats and attacks for being women who dare defy preconceived notions of a woman’s role in male-dominated societies.
Working as a woman journalist anywhere means exposing one’s self to particular types of reprisals: they are harassed more viciously than their male colleagues online, they risk being the victims of moralistic smear campaigns, and the verbal violence and threats they face often take on a sexualized nature.
Throughout 2020, UNESCO has been collaborating with the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to set up a reporting mechanism on threats made to women journalists, with a particular focus on digital threats and cyber blackmail. This mechanism, which will take the form of a helpline or “hotline” for women journalists in Iraq, will be led by a group of women police officers within a Special Investigations Unit.
While the process was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, preparations advanced throughout 2020, and trainings for selected female police officers took place in March 2021.
General Ibtsam Muzal Hashim, Lieutenant Tamara Mohamed and Major Shima Ali Ibrahim, three Iraqi female police officers, work together within the Media Department of the Ministry of Interior. Over the years, they have grown familiar with media freedom-related issues as their work has brought them to work with numerous journalists. Despite the high numbers of killed journalists in Iraq, 201 killings recorded by UNESCO between 2000 and 2020, and while several international observers consider that freedom of expression in Iraq reached a critical point following the October 2019 protests, all three officers believe that Iraqi media workers are generally free to exercise their profession. According to them, this sense of freedom has had a positive impact on gender representation in Iraqi media, as they believe it “has produced a generation of female journalists able to cover any topic, report on crimes, and notify the competent authorities of any threat that may face in their work”.
Still, many women journalists remain reluctant to report the threats they receive due to social stigma and perceptions of the police as a male-dominated institution. This issue represented the first area of focus of the March 2021 trainings, which then reviewed mechanisms to best respond to reported threats and assaults, as well as how the Ministry of Interior can internally facilitate reporting, collecting information and carrying out criminal investigations.
Following these three days of trainings, General Ibtsam Muzal Hashim said the sessions had “revealed to us the enormous amount of online and offline threats that Iraqi women journalists face during their work, and it has become clear to us the task that we, as women police officers, have to do to reduce risks and protect Iraqi journalists”. Her colleague Lieutenant Tamara Mohammed is hopeful that the creation of this feminine and feminist communication channel will help affected women journalists overcome fear and stigma, adding “certainly, our presence as women officers in the Ministry of Interior makes women journalists feel proud in a society characterized by masculinity. A female journalist certainly feels more comfortable speaking with a woman at the Ministry of Interior as opposed to a man, in my view”.
Major Ibrahim, Lieutenant Mohamed and General Hashim all welcome the initiative of creating this helpline and believe UNESCO’s involvement has raised attention to the issue of violence against women journalists in the country.