Online abuse: “ Less journalists tend to report online abuse because it happens all the time”, legal expert Charlotte Michils

Charlotte Michils is a legal expert at the Flemish Association of Journalists/Vlaamse Vereniging van Journalisten (Belgium), the Flemish part of the Association of Belgian journalists (AGJPB). Her union launched the Meldpunt platform (Hotline platform) to collect and record all cases of harassment and attacks against Flemish speaking journalists.

IFJ: Now that Meldpunt  is set up, what is your union doing to counter online harassment?  

We created the platform a couple of years ago. Our aim was to record all possible complaints and incidents of aggression against journalists – either online or offline.  We got inspired by the Council of Europe Platform for the safety of journalists which is also the format we use on our website. It is a very good tool to make incidents against journalists visible and stimulate journalists to report all possible incidents against them. Of course, it’s a bureaucratic task and not many journalists are ready to report incidents unless they are really important and something really needs to be done. We also run a specific forum but we don’t ask them to use it if they don’t want to. They can also call us. The procedures or the formalities are not at all important but it’s just a way of letting people know what we need as information in order to be able to handle the complaints. The more information we have, the more efficient the answer can be. Of course, it’s not always possible if you are bullied by anonymous accounts, but we try to help the person who reports as efficiently as possible. We also submit some of the complaints to other actors such as the International/European Federations of Journalists or ECPMF or the Council of Europe Platform. We also try to publish a report at least once a year to make the problems more visible 

IFJ: The first results of your platform for 2022 show more incidents taking place while reporting from the field than online. Do you receive many complaints on cyber harassment?

Journalists who are more visible, such as those appearing on screen, or those who are very vocal online are more likely to receive online abuse. However, less people tend to report that kind of incident because they happen all the time. Some people are more vulnerable to online harassment, such as people of color, women, people reporting on very sensitive issues. It’s always a matter of ‘is this worth reporting?’ We had a very significant case, the one of journalist Samira Attilah. She was very vocal about her situation online, she has been harassed, bullied online, also offline for many years. There is no protocol in her media to respond to that kind of difficult situation, because it also involves trolling, orchestrated campaigns by anonymous accounts. How do you handle that efficiently? She also received phone calls with robot voices. She filled out several complaints with the police, she has a very good lawyer, we supported her, her editor in chief was behind her. But the problem is she remains vulnerable. 

IFJ: What sort of support does the complainant receive? 

A journalist always remains the owner of the complaint and can decide what must be done.  We don’t take that complaint away and deal with it autonomously.  We campaign for a better legal framework to deal with such complaints, we file complaints with the police. We  assess the situation, we try to deal with it in the best possible way. A legal response is always possible but if you don’t know who is behind the attacks, it’s very difficult. We also provide information for journalists. We published a brochure.

IFJ: Do you think the police attitude towards cyber harassment has changed in the past years? 

Not so much. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that the problem is everywhere, they don’t know where to begin. A lot of harassment is done anonymously. You can’t blame the police for not acting when a lot of parameters are unclear. One of the things that is on the table at ministry level is more severe punishment of offenders. That would be progress.

IFJ: As a legal adviser, do you think that Belgium’s  legal framework is sufficient to deal with online harassment?

No, we need to refine it, especially the criminal code. At the European level, the DSA – the Digital Services Act –  deals with online hate speech. Incitement to violence is already a legal case. But at the same time, it seems very difficult to convict someone. We need to refine the law and find a more efficient way to deal with complaints. 

IFJ: Have Flemish media houses adopted guidelines or internal protocols to deal with online harassment? 

No. What we hear from journalists is that the media react on a case-by-case basis but they haven’t adopted a systematic framework.

IFJ: The Samira Attilah case was really a trigger element that has set a momentum? 

Yes. And I guess that you also realise why. There is a lot of research in Flanders on the topics of online harassment and it’s always the same scenario: very few people feel inclined to talk about their problems online, and if they do they want to remain anonymous and we are just talking about participating in academic research. Samira is willing to speak up and it’s very useful, not just for herself but also for colleagues. That kind of case creates a momentum to change things, to put things on the agenda. 

IFJ: What do you think that the IFJ could do better to support you (its members) and, indirectly, the media houses, newsrooms?

Raising awareness is important, it’s an ongoing job. It’s a thing that should be repeated over and over again. Document cases.

IFJ: Any tools or best practices to recommend? 

The Association of Professional Journalists (AJP), the French speaking part of our association, dealt with the case of journalist Myriam Leroy (NDLR: Myriam Leroy won in the criminal court) which illustrates that there is not always impunity in cases of online harassment. 


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