Panel Three

Professional Challenges of Digital Journalism in The Gambia

Sulayman Bah

Birmingham City University and Birmingham City University International College

This paper focuses on professional challenges of digital journalism in a non-Western country like The Gambia, a post authoritarian context. The Gambia has a history of strict regulation of the digital media, specifically targeting the critical online media to repress growing dissent on the internet. Following a change of government in 2017, The Gambia made a major stride for press freedom by allowing critical online publications owned by exile journalists to operate in the country. However, as state sanctioned digital threats seem low, journalism in The Gambia appear caught between global phenomena and professional journalism, which evidence suggests to be impacting the profession negatively. At the heart of this paradox, is the emerging trend of civil claims against online publishers for crimes such as defamation and occasionally, criminal charges for false publication.

Drawing on the findings from interviews I have conducted with Gambian journalists and policy makers, I have found that the relationship between the two is still suspicious and hazardous. With the extreme version of freedom of expression in a new democracy, authorities are getting extremely concerned about the professional standards of digital journalism in The Gambia. While the civil space has increased online, this paper points out gaps of lack of training on conventional journalism practices, which is evident on digital content. This paper argues that the combative approach of news websites against a repressive regime is no longer suitable under a new democracy. It points out that digital content providers must embrace professional standards to earn public trust. 

Online harassment of journalists: from “I curse you” to “I will kill you and your family”

Signe Ivask

University of Tartu and Masaryk University

Online harassment of journalists has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. While many studies have been conducted on this topic, there is still much to be learned about training future journalists to keep themselves safe and help them take care of themselves. One of the challenges in addressing this issue is that journalists often have to deal with hostility and harassment on their own, particularly in the precarious settings of the newsroom. To better understand how journalists experience (primarily online) hostility, a study was conducted in Estonia in 2021. The study involved semistructured interviews with 18 Estonian journalists and examined their experiences in three domains: personal, professional, and organisational. The study found that journalists cannot avoid work-related hostility, even off-duty. It also highlighted the need for a multilevel approach when teaching about coping with or preventing unnecessary hostility from reaching journalists. This approach should include strategies for journalists to protect themselves and organisational policies and practices that support their safety and well-being. The mapping developed in this study can be used to prepare students for occupational hazards and to develop journalism curricula that address the issue of online harassment of journalists. By providing journalists with the tools and support they need to cope with hostility and harassment, we can help ensure that they can continue to do their essential work safely and healthily.

A dashboard for monitoring online abuse against journalists

Diana Maynard (presenting author), Kalina Bontcheva, Mark A. Greenwood, Mehmet Bakir, Muneerah Patel, Julie Posetti

Department of Computer Science, University of Sheffield, Centre for Freedom of Media, International Center for Journalists 

Gender-based online violence against women journalists is one of the biggest contemporary threats to press freedom globally. In a series of projects led by ICFJ, we have published big data case studies investigating online violence targeted at emblematic women journalists from around the world. In order to conduct large scale analysis of online abuse, we have developed technical Natural Language Processing tools to identify and characterise online abuse from Twitter, as well as a dashboard for monitoring and exploring the data, with the ultimate aim of developing an early warning system to help predict the escalation of online abuse into offline harm and violence, based on indicators from the analysis.

The dashboard, which can monitor tweets in real time, enables the production of statistics about a set of tweets as a whole, abusive tweets as identified by the tools, and the nature and spread of these (for example, whether they are racist, misogynistic, personal, sexual, or attacking a journalist’s professional credibility), as well as graphs over time, frequent hashtags, topics and abuse terms used, and which tweets the abuse was in reply to. It also enables manual deep dives into the data by enabling a user to explore conversations around a particular tweet, or to search for particular accounts and terms and to see how authors are connected to one another via network analysis tools. This kind of exploration enables not only a rich understanding of abuse towards one or more journalists, but also comparisons between different journalists over time, and indicators of factors such as coordinated abusive behaviour, gaslighting, or potential for escalation to offline harm.

The dashboard has been used in the production of 5 big data case studies and is currently being extended with functionality such as translations and real-time addition of new journalists.

Media Under Surveillance: Digital threats and challenges to journalists’ safety 

Lambrini Papadopoulou (presenting author) and Theodora A. Maniou

National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and University of Cyprus

In recent years, new technologies have empowered state and non state agencies/actors with the capacity for user surveillance. While this is not new, what seems to be different from the past is the incentive to track user behaviour, a practice widely discussed after the Snowden revelations in 2013. Such practices may have a series of critical effects on journalism practices, especially in times of extreme crisis. Freedom from surveillance is an essential part of press freedom and in a digital environment, journalists need to feel safe so as to perform their duties. The global pandemic crisis after 2020 seems to have exacerbated such tactics as digital surveillance and tracking practices, and bandwidth throttling, were found to be another means that various authorities all over the world employed in order to track journalists’ work and contacts, invade their privacy and hinder the dissemination of their stories. Press freedom organizations around the world have already warned that, unless such practices are proportionate, transparent and time-limited, they could infringe on civil liberties and pose serious threats to journalists’ right to move freely and communicate with their sources confidentially.

Drawing from worldwide press freedom monitoring tools and platforms established by various credible global organizations, this study shows that after 2020 and the onset of the pandemic crisis digital safety of journalists around the world is at serious risk. By assessing an international sample of cases where technological threats to press freedom were documented, the study offers a thorough view to old and new practices aiming at hampering digital journalism and silencing critical media voices, not only in authoritarian states but also in western democracies. Overall, the main target of this work is to offer an enriched conceptual approach to the types of technological threats to journalism safety in recent years.

Indicative References

Papadopoulou, L., & Maniou, T.A. (2021) ‘Lockdown’ on Digital Journalism? Mapping Threats to Press Freedom during the COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis. Digital Journalism, 9(9): 1344-1366.

RSF. (2020). Platforms urged to prevent harassment of journalists covering Covid-19. Available at:  

Tsui, L., & Lee, F. (2019). How Journalists Understand the Threats and Opportunities of New Technologies: A Study of Security Mind-sets and its Implications for Press Freedom. Journalism, 22 (6): 1337–1339.

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization. Journal of Information Technology, 30 (1): 75–89.