Women and Racialized Journalists In Canada Facing New Wave Of Harassment And Threats

Reporters and public figures who track the far-right have always been a target for vitriol. Women and racialized people receive a disproportionate amount of the abuse.

Peter Smith
Canadian Anti-Hate Network


Source: Unsplash


A series of mainstream Canadian journalists and public activists received identical emails last week. The message suggested that people would be waiting outside a young reporter’s home, and implied coordinated plans for violence and stalking amid a flurry of racial and gender-based slurs. 

Whether or not the premise of the email is true, the violent message was sent to numerous Canadian women who dare to be public figures. The calls in the text for broken windows and “wig-removal service” on specific journalists has one intention – to intimidate. 

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Far from the only incident, journalists, especially women and those from visible and marginalized groups, have continually been made the target of coordinated harassment campaigns. 

“Yesterday I received two more threatening emails. The first was incredibly racist and escalated the violence towards me, threatening to break my bones and rape me. The other said I am being surveilled and to watch my back,” wrote the Edmonton Journal’s Anna Junker on Twitter.

She told the Canadian Anti-Hate Network she believes the messages started because she voiced support for another female journalist facing similar vitriol.  

“Their main targets clearly are women and women of colour in particular. It’s clear they are monitoring our social media, due to the content in the emails,” Junker added in a statement to CAHN. 

Within the far right, content creators and community members alike are joining in on the spectacle. While many will make a point to disavow the specific threats related to violence, sexual assault, and stalking, they will also, in the same breath, release a torrid of justifications for not just distrusting the media, but outright hatred and hostility. 

“Those of us targeted are women and women of overlapping identities,” said Erica Ifill, an economist, podcast host, and journalist also recently named and targeted in a series of harassing messages. “This is about us using our platforms to speak and attempts to silence us.” 

Describing her disappointment with many men in the Canadian media downplaying the threats or being silent about them, Ifill also calls on prominent women in the field to speak out. 

“This is an issue upending our democracy and preserving a free press,” Ifill adds, expressing her frustration with attempts to involve law enforcement. “They tell us in the messages police don’t give a shit about us, and they’re right.”

  

Condemnation, But Little Action

   

When Global News politics reporter Rachel Gilmore was named in the threatening emails she called police to report what happened. Recording the call, the officer talking on the line appears to dismiss her complaint after hearing that one of the two other threatened reporters was also filing a report. 

Text from the email read by Gilmore included her name on a list of women reporters who needed to be “boogalooed the fuck out of Canada” – the “boogaloo” is a term that serves as a stand-in for a supposed coming civil war in western nations. 

The targeting of journalists prompted the editors of the Toronto Star, The Hill Times and Global News to release an open letter to the government with the Canadian Association of Journalists. condemns the abuse and outlines “steps to address the current incidents and to work with our organizations to combat abuse of journalists and all victims of online hate and harassment.”

The resulting media attention has seen several politicians, including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, weighing in on the issue and condemning the harassment and threats.

“Journalists – especially female journalists – shouldn't have to deal with rape or death threats,” Singh wrote on social media. “It's absolutely disgusting and we must never allow it to become normalized.”

It is not the first example of media figures having problems convincing the police to take threats on their life seriously. 

Most recently, Twitch streamer and trans woman Clara Sorrenti was doxed and swatted at her London, Ontario home. Sorrenti, talking to journalist Ahmar Khan, said she informed London Police months ago that she could be targeted. 

An individual claiming to be Sorrenti sent threats to numerous politicians. Despite red flags in the threatening emails – including the use of Sorrenti’s deadname – police showed up at her door with guns drawn. The following week she was doxxed again and the streamer saw multiple pizzas showing up, addressed to her deadname, at the hotel they were using as a temporary refuge. 

The problems do not end there either. 

When Free Press reporter Ryan Thorpe exposed Canadian Armed Forces member Patrick Mathews as the national recruiter for The Base – an accelerationist, neo-Nazi survivalist militia – Mathews fled the country. 

After Mathews illegally crossed into the US, testimony by other members of The Base shows that not only did the former combat engineer’s comrades ferry him to safety once across the border, but there were also discussions about plans to murder Thorpe in retribution. 

By his own telling, Thorpe was called by the RCMP and presented with a letter telling him his life was in danger. Beyond the existence of a vague threat, no other information was shared with the reporter until recently.

  

What Can Be Done?

  

Protecting the safety of the press while reporting on complicated and difficult subjects is essential for a healthy democracy. 

Speaking as someone impacted directly by the threats, Ifill said she was impressed by the response from The Hill Times, where she is contracted as a columnist and has advice for workplaces that have members who become the target of harassment. 

“Help with mental health benefits, including to contractors, not just staff,” she said, pointing out that many contractors in Canadian media are racialized people.

Other steps, also suggested by security experts, include helping talk with law enforcement when necessary. 

“If your employee is filing a police report, support them.”

She also points to the importance of there being a community response. Ifill has found solidarity and support among her colleagues also impacted by the recent threats, and encourages newsrooms and publishers to reach out to other organizations for help. 

Combatting this type of harassment is no small task. It only takes a single individual, spurred on by content creators and other members of the far-right, to conduct a prolific targeted harassment campaign. Collective efforts, like those aimed at Sorrenti, can be even more terrifying.

“Media companies can definitely do more to support their staff’s personal security, both proactively and in response to harassment,” Leigh Honeywell told CAHN.

Honeywell is the CEO and founder of Tall Poppy, a business that focuses on educating and supporting companies when employees become targets online. Overall, she believes businesses have a number of responsibilities to help those becoming the victims of online hate. 

“The first is helping folks understand their personal online footprint - where has personal information like phone numbers and home addresses leaked online, is it easy to figure out where their kid goes to school, etc. - and then removing that information wherever possible.

Once the information becomes available on sites and forums it can become near impossible to have it removed. Preemptive locking of personal social media accounts can have a big impact here. 

“This is one of the common ways online harassment escalates into longer-term harm, and is something that journalists often don’t have good practices around. Beyond just harassment, this is important to ensure that their sources stay protected, as leaks of Twitter DMs or personal emails can endanger those relationships.”

Finally, Honeywell echos Ifill in providing support when it comes to dealing with the police.

“Historically law enforcement has not done a great job of supporting folks dealing with online threats. Additionally, some reporters who are members of groups which have historically been targeted by law enforcement are understandably uncomfortable interacting with them even when they are the ones being victimized. 

“The role media organizations can play here is twofold: they can advocate for LE to take these issues more seriously, and they can support employees who do want to report with legal representation and strategic advice on best practices for reporting these issues.”

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