‘It’s relentless’: Canada media demand action over online abuse

Ottawa, Canada/ AFP

“I’m done,” exasperated Canadian journalist Rachel Gilmore said in an online post imploring authorities to tackle a dramatic rise of hate, including death and rape threats, against her and her peers.

The online abuse of journalists, which has become a global phenomenon, has reached a fever pitch in Canada, where dozens of media groups have joined forces with reporters to demand authorities take the matter seriously.

The “free press is under attack,” said Gilmore, a reporter with Global News, adding: “We won’t be silenced. But we need you to stand up for us.”

From catcalls interrupting live broadcasts to obscenity-laced online threats, journalists say they are facing an onslaught.

Some are afraid to leave their homes and have been forced to take extraordinary security precautions.

“It’s relentless,” said Erica Ifill, a columnist at The Hill Times in Ottawa. “It ranges from death threats to rape threats to letting us know they’re surveilling us.”

“I’m thinking maybe I should leave journalism,” she said.

– ‘A chilling effect’-

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has backed Gilmore’s call for action.

Earlier this month, 52 newspapers, broadcasters and media organizations published an open letter warning of a “chilling effect” and urging political leaders to denounce “any attempts to undermine” the media.

“Online harassment is a scourge on our democracy and it needs to stop,” the CAJ said, noting that such “vile abuse” is most often directed toward journalists who are women, LGBT, or people of color.

Gilmore and others have been called “trash whores” or worse on social media. One message said they “need to be boogaloo’ed the fuck out of Canada,” using a term linked to a far-right movement in the United States.

“I’ll kill you bitch better watch your back when your (sic) in public,” said another.

The daily Toronto Star’s Saba Eitizaz said it had gotten so bad — she is named in dozens of antagonistic messages per day — that she had to take a medical leave from work.

“This is definitely far worse and far more insidious than a general sort of public disenchantment with the media,” she told AFP.

– ‘Play dirty with journalists’ –

Eitizaz said the spike in abuse started in late 2021 when a far-right Canadian politician urged his supporters to “play dirty with journalists.” Then it gained momentum during a weeks-long trucker-led protest that clogged the capital and blocked trade routes in February.

“Now I’m constantly dreading what I might find in my in-box,” she said.

Originally from Pakistan, Eitizaz said she fled to Canada after being targeted by a “similar malicious digital campaign” over her human rights reporting.

“I came to this country for safety, and so I feel cognitive dissonance facing death threats in Canada,” she said.

– ‘Heinous and unacceptable’-

The fourth estate has long been derided by those in power, such as Richard Nixon, who in secret White House tapes vilified the press as “the enemy.”

However, the situation has worsened with the rise of social media and more virulent attacks on the press by leaders such as former US president Donald Trump, whose taunts of “fake news” were taken up across the globe.

Ifill and others blame several factors for the rise in hate: political polarization, economic insecurity, and a pandemic that forced people into isolation, “sitting at home in front of their computers, scared and angry.”

Canadian Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino tweeted: “The abuse that Rachel and other journalists have received — in particular women and people of color — is heinous and unacceptable.”

According to his office, Mendicino has raised the issue with chiefs of police across Canada.

Several journalists who spoke to AFP lamented an apparent police reluctance to charge perpetrators.

“They don’t see these people as a threat,” Ifill explained.

Ottawa police Constable Mike Cudrasov would not say if any investigations arose from journalists’ complaints, but added that “allegations of threats are taken seriously.”

Ottawa is also to unveil an “online safety act” in 2023 that some hope will curb bad behaviors. Officials told AFP the act will leave it to platforms to moderate content.

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