Online abuse: "Cyberbullying is not experienced in the same way if you are supported or isolated”, journalist Julie Hainaut

Julie Hainaut is a French freelance journalist and author. In 2017 she published in the weekly magazine Le Petit Bulletin the shocking remarks about the colonial era made by the owners of a bar. The publication by a neo-Nazi website of insulting comments against her led to a torrent of insults, rape threats and death threats on social networks. She decided to file a complaint without the support of her media. It was in vain. One of her harassers was eventually given just a suspended prison sentence. In August 2022, the French labour inspectorate finally admitted that Le Petit Bulletin had "failed to fulfil its legal obligations" towards the journalist, noting "a particularly serious case of violence in the workplace".

IFJ:  You reported that your employer remained completely silent following the online hate and harassment campaign you faced in 2017. The labour inspectorate report concluded at the end of August 2022 that there were numerous failings on the part of LePetit Bulletin hierarchy. Can you tell us more about your employer's lack of response? What kind of help do you think the media should provide?

My employer has failed in all its legal obligations. Nothing, absolutely nothing was respected. Yet the law is clear: the employer is obliged to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and the mental and physical health of their employees. At no time was this the case: no single occupational risk assessment document (DUERP)* was filled in, no declaration of work accident, no medical follow-up by the occupational health service, no measures to limit the consequences of the damage to my health. Worse, they sidelined me, as the report states. Another fact pointed out by the inspectorate is that my employer could have supported me legally, which they never did.

The media should simply respect the law. And that means looking after the health and safety of their employees. Moral support is also welcome. You don't experience cyberbullying in the same way if you are supported or isolated.  

Newsrooms should be trained on cyberbullying and adopt emergency mechanisms when threats occur against  a journalist.  

IFJ:  The National Union of Journalists (SNJ) has filed a civil suit against one of your harassers. How important was the SNJ's support to you? 

The SNJ and RSF filed a civil suit. The support of the profession is essential. On the one hand, to counter the isolation into which cyberbullying plunges us, but also for the moral support and legal help they can provide.

IFJ: What differences do you notice between the treatment (judicial, media, police) that your case received and the current cases recognised by the courts as "cyberbullying"?

My case was the first in this area, just before #metoo. I had a rough ride. The police didn't know the word "cyberstalking", and it was never used in my complaints. The police were not trained on this kind of violence. My stalker was tried for public insults and defamation. Today, this word is more established. The law has evolved, especially concerning digital raids. If this case took place today, it would not be treated in the same way.

IFJ: What responses should unions have to the impacts and psychological effects of cyberbullying?

First of all, listening. Many people give their opinion, judge, without listening to the victim. We end up keeping quiet. Then, legal help, help to find a good shrink too. There could also be support to protect one’s digital safety. Finally, it would be a real plus if the cyberbullied journalist's social networks were taken care of during this period. 

IFJ:  What advice would you give to journalists who are targeted by cyber-stalkers? And more specifically to women journalists?

To be well surrounded, not to feel guilty, not to be ashamed and to be followed from the start by a (good) specialist shrink to find out what to expect (post-traumatic stress, among other things). But also take screenshots, don't respond to harassers, check your security settings, file a complaint with the prosecutor.

 IFJ:  Do you now take special precautions when expressing yourself on social networks?

Of course I do. I am very careful.

IFJ:  How can we move away from just responding to cyberbullying to prevention?

By tackling the root of the problem: the relationships of domination that exist and constitute society. And making them disappear. It's been well documented that cyberbullying mainly affects minorities and marginalised people. A bit of education would also do no harm, whether in schools, in editorial offices, in companies.

*A document that has been compulsory for companies since 2001 when hiring an employee. It must be regularly updated. If it is not done, the company is liable to be fined in the event of an inspection by the labour inspectorate or occupational medicine.

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