No gender justice without freedom of expression, say UN special rapporteur, GMMP coordinator & other experts

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Khan was one of the panelists at Gender Justice: Advancing Pluralism and Free Speech for All, a forum organized July 13 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media. [Watch video here.] The other panelists were Sarah Macharia, coordinator of WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) and general secretary of the Global Alliance on Media and Gender (GAMAG), Teresa Ribeiro, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Lucina di Meco, co-founder of #ShePersisted.  

Macharia set the scene by stating that the possibilities for women to exercise their right to freedom of expression are “bound up in media treatment of them and in the roles that they play through portrayal and representation” in the news and other media.  

She shared sobering statistics from the latest GMMP report, among them, that “all things remaining equal, it will take at least almost seven decades to close the average gender equality gap in print and broadcast news media.” She also noted that the needle towards gender equality in visibility and voice has shifted only eight points in 25 years, or since 1995, when the first GMMP was launched. 

Macharia also identified the lack of financial support as one of the key challenges facing gender-related projects such as the GMMP, which she described as “being the only one of its kind that brings together scholars, activists, a whole range of stakeholders some of them from industry regulatory bodies as well as state agencies.” She underscored the importance of the GMMP in generating data and evidence, and in developing “that longitudinal view through statistics of what’s happening, where we’re going, where progress is happening and where it’s not happening.”  

‘Structural barriers at every step’ 

Women continue to be limited in their access to and enjoyment of freedom of expression, said Ribeiro, noting not only a lack of access to information, but also access to digital technology and other communication tools.

Teresa Ribeiro, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

“Women face structural barriers at every step…We do not have true diversity of voices which is a key element for freedom of expression and public debate,” she said, noting that depriving women the right to freedom of expression “has a huge impact on the quality of democracy.” 

Khan, meanwhile, pointed to the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Gender Justice recently presented to the UN General Assembly, which she said indicates “the need for much more importance to be given to this enabling right, which is a gateway right to all other human rights for women.” 

She also highlighted the issue of gendered censorship, or the various ways in which women’s voices are suppressed by laws, policies, as well as cultural, religious, and social norms. She cited gender-based violence offline and online, directed in particular at women journalists, women politicians, women’s rights activists, and gender nonconforming people as “the most crude way in which censorship is exercised on women.” They often happen in “sexualized, coordinated” and targeted ways, she said.  

Public morals, which is a legitimate ground under international law to restrict freedom of expression, is also being “deliberately used to restrict women in unlawful, illegitimate ways,” along with “paternalistic excuses…for protecting women.” Khan cited the pressure applied on women artists, and even teenage girls, such as those in Egypt, who have been sent to prison for posting videos of themselves dancing on TikTok.  

“Access to information is a pathway to empowerment and yet there are major blockages that need to be addressed,” said Khan, citing restrictions on certain types of information on LGBTQI issues or on sexual and reproductive rights that disproportionately affect women. She discussed the gender digital divide, citing how overall only 48% of women worldwide have access to the Internet, and lower still in other parts of the world like Africa, at 23%. Other factors deepen the gender digital divide, she said, noting that in the European Union and the U.S., Black and ethnic minority women have less access to the Internet because of poverty, lower levels of literacy, cultural and linguistic barriers.  

 ‘Like emptying a city with a teacup’  

Di Meco, meanwhile, shared a study conducted by #ShePersisted among women in politics in the EU that found that almost half of the have been targeted through sexually explicit and humiliating fake doctored images of them on social media. “Let’s not forget that 96% of existing deep fakes feature well-known women, including women in politics,” she said. She lambasted digital platform companies who have failed to act on this problem and decide to “prioritize profit over social cohesion, and over women’s rights.”  

Lucina di Meco, co-founder of #ShePersisted, presents findings of her organization’s study on online violence against women in politics.

Her organization, she added, interviewed more than 85 women leaders in 30 countries around the world who expressed the same concerns about how “gendered disinformation” campaigns were having an impact on themselves and their families. “Many of them had to change homes, some went into hiding, some left politics altogether and discouraged their daughters from considering a political career because of what happened to them,” she said. “Those are the type of stories we hear over and over again…the threats are steeped in sexism…are often coordinated and they revolve around gender stereotypes that already exist and therefore very easy to take hold on people’s minds.” Some stereotypes revolve around women’s ability to lead, which already exist in a misogynistic society, she said, adding that strong male political leaders and autocrats often employ these as political tools.  

Di Meco also challenged the argument digital companies often make about how regulating their platforms would infringe upon freedom of expression. “I want to ask you to really consider whose freedom of expression we’re talking about because today there is no freedom of expression for millions of women that are being doxed and silenced, that are finding deepfake pornographic videos of them circulated on social media.” Strengthening digital platform standards “does not impede on freedom of expression. It is, in fact, a condition for freedom of expression,” she said.  

Social media platforms by themselves cannot be counted upon to end the scourge of gendered disinformation, said di Meco, citing studies that show that they do not comply even with their own terms of service and standards. They have been “allowed to run free” for so long and must be held to the same standards that all other industries are held to, she stressed. This means that their products need to undergo risk and impact assessments, she said. “Content moderation will never be enough. It’s like trying to empty the city with a teacup. It’s just not gonna work.”  

Macharia, meanwhile, said cited a study by the Swedish Fojo Media Institute on gender integration in media policy and law, which concluded that self-regulation in news media “presents a promise for progress on gender equality in the media sector,” since it continues to uphold media’s right to freedom and independence.