Full Report (PDF, 1MB)
Attacks against journalists appear to be on the rise recently in countries around the world. These include attacks allegedly directed by governments or politicians, as well as by individuals displeased with their own media coverage or generally with the press. The widespread use of social media has facilitated harassment of journalists in online settings by a variety of means, including by disseminating threats and disinformation, stalking, and broadcasting private or personally identifiable information about targeted journalists (doxing). While a significant number of journalists have reportedly faced online abuse and harassment, female journalists have been disproportionately affected.
Concerns for the impact of online harassment of journalists on freedom of expression and free flow of information have been expressed by international, regional, and national institutions as well as by civil societies around the globe. Such concerns center on the understanding in many countries that freedom of speech, and particularly of political expression, serves as an essential foundation for maintaining a democratic system of government.
Recognizing these concerns in 2017, the United Nations General Assembly issued a resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity addressing violence, intimidation and harassment of journalists, especially female journalists, online and offline. The General Assembly called upon states “to create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.”
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) expressed similar concerns and, in April 2019, proposed to its member states establishing national committees for the safety of journalists that would include “representatives of the prosecutor’s office, the police and journalist associations to verify that all attacks and threats are properly investigated, improve procedures if needed; propose protection measures when necessary and implement preventive action to reinforce the security of journalists.”
This report examines incidents of online harassment of journalists in selected countries and highlights legal measures available in those countries to address the problem. For the purposes of this report, “online harassment” includes activities that are carried out in an online setting, such as “email, social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), messaging apps (such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp), blogging platforms (such as Medium, Tumblr, and WordPress), and comments sections (such as those found on digital news platforms, personal blogs, YouTube pages, and Amazon book reviews).” Online harassment applies to bullying, stalking, doxing, hacking, communicating hateful speech and threats, nonconsensual, intimate images and videos, impersonation or sexual harassment, and trolling, among others.
The report is composed of a survey of relevant international law instruments and activities directed at protection against online threats and harassment of journalists, as well as individual surveys for the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, England and Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Singapore, Spain, and Turkey. These countries were selected based on their relevant developments in this area, as well as based on staff expertise currently available at the Law Library of Congress’s Global Legal Research Directorate. In preparation of the individual surveys, primary and secondary sources at the Law Library of Congress’s collections, legal databases to which it subscribes, and open sources have been used.
The following summary of the report’s findings is based on more expansive information contained in the individual surveys.
I. Reported Incidents of Online Harassment of Journalists
Incidents involving online harassment of journalists have been identified in a number of countries surveyed.
In March 2019, police in Australia reportedly charged one of the country’s most prominent far-right extremists with allegedly making repeated and explicit threats online against a Melbourne journalist and lawyer. The charges included “using a carriage service to menace and to issue threats to do serious harm.”
In 2016, the Guardian newspaper reported that a journalist filed a lawsuit requesting Google to reveal who ordered an advertisement that listed his name and his blog under a notation that says he is lying. Earlier that year, a newspaper in Brazil published a fabricated story along with a picture of the journalist’s face, wrongly claiming that he had said “the retired are useless to society,” prompting a cascade of violent verbal abuse. In another case, the Committee to Protect Journalists on September 3, 2019, called for Brazilian authorities to investigate threats against an owner of a newspaper and website made as a reprisal for a publication alleging local landowners and farmers were organizing a day of coordinated fires in the Amazon region. No further information has been reported on the cases.
In Finland, a journalist who investigated Russian internet activities was subjected in 2014 to online death threats, publication of her phone number, and attacks on her reputation. The online publisher of the unlawful information against the journalist was convicted in 2018 under general harassment offenses.
A freelance journalist in France received many insults and threats after she published an article alleging that the owners of a local bar had praised the colonial era. She was also the victim of doxing, following which she reported that strangers waited in front of her home twice. As of April 2018, this case was still under investigation. Another journalist and radio broadcaster was the target of pornographic postings, death threats, threats of rape, and hate speech after she had denounced members of an online forum for their harassment of two feminist activists. Two of the seven perpetrators were tried in court, one on charges of making death threats, and the other on charges of threatening to commit rape. Both were given six-month suspended prison sentences and a fine.
A TV crime reporter who was responsible for leaks from a corruption case involving Israel’s Prime Minister (PM) Binyamin Netanyahu was reportedly a top target for hostile messages and was attached a personal security guard following a slew of threats directed at him on his personal WhatsApp and other social networks, such as one threatening that “God will make you pay.”
In Spain, journalists covering the 2017 Catalonia independence referendum became targets of attacks by persons on both sides of the issue.
The survey on England and Wales indicates that a member of a far-right group videoed himself knocking and shouting at the door of a journalist late at night and in the early morning hours while live-streaming the event, revealing the journalist’s home address, as followers bombarded the journalist with messages through social media. There were no reports anyone was charged with any offense. There have also been reports that the BBC hired a bodyguard to protect one of its political reporters during the 2017 elections.
Violence against and harassment of journalists in Germany rose in 2018 compared to the previous year, with most assaults taking place at right-wing events or demonstrations. Among other things, assailants in Germany destroyed the equipment of journalists or called them “lying press.” Journalists have also been the victims of doxing.
II. Legal Measures for Protection of Journalists from Online Harassment
None of the countries surveyed were found to have adopted specific provisions for the protection of journalists from online harassment. Instead, the individual country surveys indicate the availability of legislation either specifically targeting online harassment or generally prohibiting harassment by any means, including online. Some countries provide for a mechanism to remove offensive posts which may include those that under certain circumstances constitute harassment.
A. Specific Offenses Involving Online Harassment
Specific offenses involving online harassment applicable to journalists and non-journalists alike were found in a number of countries.
In Canada, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act enacted in 2015 prohibits cyberbullying and nonconsensual distribution of intimate images, including by messaging under a false name or information, or by indecent and harassing communications.
The laws of Finland contain a number of crimes specific to online behavior, such as violating a person’s privacy online and interference with the peaceful enjoyment of communication services. Accordingly, violations perpetrated through messaging over the phone, or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media platforms, are punishable similar to other types of harassment including by repeatedly calling someone, playing loud music to spite another person, etc.
Under German law, the practice of doxing could qualify as data espionage, an offense involving the unauthorized obtaining and dissemination to others of someone else’s specially protected data stored or transmitted electronically or magnetically. Obtaining non-publicly available data from another person who has obtained that data unlawfully and making it publicly available with the intent to harm another constitutes the offense of “data fencing” under German law. Repeated online harassment of journalists in Germany may also be punishable as stalking by means of telecommunications, among other offenses.
Special provisions against stalking and online harassment were identified in Singapore, under the 2014 Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). POHA also prohibits the intentional or reckless issue of a communication that is threatening, abusive, or insulting, which is heard, seen, or otherwise perceived and likely to harass or cause alarm or distress or instill in a person fear or provoke violence. A 2019 amendment of POHA further prohibits the publication of information identifying the victim or a person related to the victim in order to harass, threaten, or facilitate violence against the victim (“doxing”).
Like the above-mentioned countries, Spain has no specific legal protection against the harassment of journalists. However, it does prohibit cyberstalking or harassment in general, including when carried out online.
Under Turkey’s Penal Code, certain crimes involving online use constitute aggravated offenses. For example, insulting someone “by means of . . . written or visual medium message” or in public is an aggravated offense. Sexual harassment committed “by using the advantage provided by mail or electronic communication instruments, [or] . . . by the act of exposing” is similarly considered an aggravated offense.
B. General Harassment Offenses that May Extend to Online Environment
General protection against harassment appears to extend to online harassment in a number of countries surveyed.
Online harassment may constitute, under appropriate circumstances, one of several federal criminal offenses in Australia, including using a carriage service to menace, harass, or cause offense. There are also prohibitions on the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images and racial vilification. Online harassment may also constitute civil or criminal offenses under state laws, including: stalking and threats; vilification based on race, religion etc.; nonconsensual sharing of intimate images; and defamation.
Several provisions of Brazil’s Penal Code that apply to harassment in general may apply to harassment on the internet. These include prohibitions on slandering, threatening and forcing someone “through violence or grave threat, or after having reduced by any other means his or her ability to resist, not to do what the law permits, or to do what the law does not command.”
In addition to specific online offenses under Canadian and Finnish laws, the law of these countries enables using a variety of other offenses to protect journalists from online harassment. Such offenses include in Canada intimidation of a journalist by a criminal organization, and criminal harassment, which may apply to cyberstalking. Canadian courts have also reportedly been willing to apply the civil action of libel in the online context (“Cyber-libel”). Finland’s law criminalizes a number of activities, including defamation, harassment, threats of violence, and stalking, that apply to both offline and online behavior.
France’s law similarly contains several general protections that may extend to online harassment. These include laws against defamation, insults, breaches of privacy, threats, malicious messages, and other harassing behavior.
Various general offenses may apply to the online harassment of journalist under German law. These include, under qualified circumstances, assault, public incitement to crime, insult and defamation, and processing personal data without authorization.
Online harassment of journalists in Israel may be penalized under a variety of offenses including: an incitement to commit violence; threats and intimidation; sexual harassment including by using a computer; defamation by publication via any means of content that might humiliate, make a person a target of hatred, contempt or ridicule, harm a person’s position, or disrespect a person for his race, origin, religion, place of residence, age, sex, sexual orientation or disability; as well as violation of the Protection of Privacy Law.
In Japan, the crimes of defamation, insults, and threat under the Penal Code and torts under the Civil Code provide protection against online harassment and disinformation.
Similar to other countries mentioned in this section, England and Wales have a significant number of pieces of legislation containing offenses that aim to protect any individual from harassment and abuse. Such offenses include those dealing with communication, harassment and abuse, stirring up hatred on the basis of racial, religious or sexual orientation, provocation of violence, publishing an obscene article, publicly displaying indecent matter, possessing extreme pornographic images, disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress, etc. An in-depth “scoping report” conducted by the Law Commission found that existing laws in England and Wales, with some limitations, cover online communications that are abusive, but that there are various overlapping laws that have led to uncertainty. Technological limitations within the police force and the uncertainty of the law have led to under reporting and difficulties in successfully prosecuting offenders. The Law Commission has recommended that the laws be reviewed and consolidated to provide greater clarity and certainty.
C. Removal of Offensive Posts
A number of country surveys indicate the availability of a mechanism to request removal of offensive posts by persons targeted for online harassment. The following are examples of legislation on the subject.
Federal legislation targeting the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images online was introduced in Australia in 2018. Based on this legislation, the Office of the eSafety Commissioner now operates a complaint system and removal notice process in relation to the nonconsensual sharing of such images, whether or not the material is altered.
England and Wales defamation law enables individuals to request website operators (WOs) to remove defamatory material from the website. WOs may be protected from liability for defamation if they can show that they did not post the defamatory statement. This defense may be defeated, however, if the claimant can show that he or she: could not identify the person who posted the allegedly defamatory statement, notified the WO of the complaint relating to the statement, and the WO failed to respond to the complaint.
German law imposes a duty on host providers to delete harassing messages published by third parties on their platforms upon notification. Under legislation adopted in 2017 providers must comply within twenty-four hours after receiving a user complaint if the content is “clearly illegal,” otherwise, they have seven days to comply. Noncompliance results in fines. However, the requirement applies only to networks that have two million or more registered users in Germany.
Japan’s Internet Provider Liability Act similarly facilitates removal of offensive online information, and obtaining information on the identity of the offender for later legal actions is made easier by limiting the providers’ liability.
Controversial legislation in Turkey, Law No. 5651, provides a process for blocking internet content that violates a complainant’s personal rights, and thus in principle could be relevant to blockage of content constituting harassment of journalists. The law, however, was subjected to widespread condemnation from domestic and international observers, and the Constitutional Court of Turkey has found its implementation to be in violation of constitutional protections on numerous occasions.
III. Other Measures
The country surveys contain information on activities undertaken in a number of countries to enhance protection of journalists from online harassment, including the developments described below.
In February 2019, Australia’s government released a draft Online Safety Charter setting out the government’s expectations of digital platforms in reducing harm, with the public consultation process running until early April 2019. Recommendations arising from a review of the federal online safety legislation, completed in early 2019, have so far not been developed into legislation, although one of the partners in the current coalition government has stated that it supports the changes. These include extending the cyberbullying coverage in the legislation to adults and a more proactive regulatory regime and toughened enforcement powers.
Finland’s Department of Justice published a guide, “Journalists and the Hate Rhetoric,” as part of a 2019 campaign against hateful rhetoric, including governmental and nongovernmental entities.
The National Committee for the Safety of Journalists was established in England and Wales on July 11, 2019, to prepare a national action plan on the safety of journalists, examine current protections and ensure availability of mechanisms to protect journalists. The government is reportedly working with law enforcement agencies to review whether its “current powers are sufficient to tackle anonymous abuse online.” The police on their part are receiving training to improve digital capability and facilitate reporting on online crimes.
On October 30, 2019, the German government adopted a set of measures to combat hate crimes and right-wing extremism--in particular, online hate crimes. Among other things, the government proposes to amend the Criminal Code to align the rules with technical developments and the online world by adapting existing or adding new provisions to better address cyberstalking and similar forms of online harassment or insults.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also been quite active in developing several handbooks, training and position papers designed to protect journalists from online threats and harassment.
IV. Media Organizations’ Initiatives
Several initiatives taken by media organizations around the world should be noted.
For example, in 2019, Finland’s media companies joined forces and set up a “journalist support fund” to counter harassment. As of September 2019, however, the fund is not yet active. Additionally, the Union of Journalists of Finland has issued a guide for active journalists with advice on what to do if they are the target of a hate campaign. Finnish media representatives have also issued statements for a return to “fact-based” journalism.
In recognition of the increase in online attacks on journalists, newsrooms in Spain adopted best practices for managing comments on websites. News organizations with a strong social media presence hide insulting or violent comments, whether addressed to journalists or other readers. Additionally, specific protocols were adopted by certain newspapers to provide for procedures for journalists’ complaints, assessment of online harassment complaints by the newspaper’s social media team, consideration of withdrawal of comments from social media platforms, and referral to legal counsel and human resources for the purpose of filing legal actions.
More detailed information on the issues highlighted in this summary is provided in the individual surveys.
Comparative Summary by Ruth Levush
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
Updated to include Germany December 2019
 See e.g., Nicki Peter Petrikowski ,Charlie Hebdo Shooting, Terrorist Attacks, Paris, France , Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://perma.cc/9789-9Q8V; see also Kevin Rector & Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Five Dead in 'Targeted Attack' at Capital Gazette Newspaper in Annapolis, Police Say; Laurel Man Charged with Murder, Baltimore Sun (June 29, 2018), https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bs-md-gazette-shooting-20180628-story.html.
 See appended individual countries and international law surveys.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020