Priscila Bellini

Brazilian journalist and a Chevening Scholar

Part of Media Freedom

30th July 2019

A newsroom of one’s own: why the talk about media freedom should be attentive to gender

Priscila Bellini

Priscila Bellini is a Brazilian journalist and a Chevening Scholar studying Gender, Media and Culture at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

What does it mean to report freely on issues of public interest, if we are to be attentive to gender? After all, the stories we cover are, oftentimes, marked by gender. The people we interview, the social problems which affect them, the risks they run… They are situated within markers such as gender, race and sexuality. And so are we, as journalists.

Oftentimes, the discussion surrounding media freedom turns to censorship, forms of silencing and violence. However, it is important to take a step further and ask who is subject to what kinds of violence, both online and offline, when writing about those issues. When threats by governments, companies, groups and individuals appear, who is the target? How should we elaborate a response, in the form of policy and protection to journalists?

This becomes particularly evident when one writes about sensitive issues, including those concerning gender. After writing about transphobia and the murder of a Brazilian trans woman back in 2015, for instance, I received comments on my private messages on Facebook. They included derogatory terms, using sexual connotation and terms which were clearly gendered. Reactions to the articles I wrote at the time also accused me of ‘man-hating’ and ‘spreading a feminist gospel’.

Working on a cover story on rape in Brazil, along with three other journalists, I saw the pattern repeating itself. All of us had social media pages swamped by messages from a ‘troll’ who was angry at the ‘feminists’ in the publication. I remember looking at my cell phone notifications and being shocked by the number of comments on posts, personal photos, private messages. I could not help but wonder why somebody would feel so attacked by an investigation on rape in Brazil. I also noticed, from my experience and from hearing other colleagues’, how the offences and reactions to stories like that were deeply gendered.

Another example comes from the recent report on the Operation Car Wash published by The Intercept, led by the award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald. He received threats and homophobic abuse, addressed to him and his husband, the politician David Miranda. Comments about his ‘sexual partner’ from political authorities, or associating the gay journalist to HIV, demonstrate the extent to which these violations are expressed along the lines of sexuality. Writing about gender or not, women and LGBTQ+ persons face different forms of harassment and discrimination.

However, facing forms of harassment is not part of the job description, nor should it be. That is, journalists should not have to choose between telling stories and have their mental health and safety preserved. When this choice is imposed, the role of media in covering matters of public interest is at risk. If threats, trolling and offences follow patterns dictated by gender and other markers, the responses need to be sensitive to it. Otherwise, the work of denouncing, providing context and bringing transparency about social problems — from national scandals to everyday local news — is at stake. Arguably, media freedom needs to be seen as more than an abstract concept.

When the work of journalists brings to light schemes of bribery and corruption, or when it denounces human rights violations by governments, it is safeguarding rights. For the interest of the public, media professionals not only alert attention to such violations, but also press for the need of those fundamental rights to become fully realised. However, it is only possible to achieve this by ensuring that violence, harassment and censorship do not get in the way.