I could never have imagined it. When I took my three-year-old daughter to nursery school one Monday morning, her teacher asked me why there were posts on the internet claiming that I was having “sex with n*****s”. Nor could I have ever imagined that one of my female colleagues would quit active journalism for office desk duties in fear of losing her life. In Lesvos – the Greek island that has become internationally known for its people’s solidarity to refugees – democracy and press freedom are under attack. Journalists, and predominantly women journalists, have become the easiest and most convenient target.
In Greek, the word “journalist” is of masculine gender. Even though many other professions, as women grew stronger, became female-gendered too, “journalism” remains male. Gender-based discrimination applies equally to salaries, promotions and managerial posts. In the great crisis the Greek media have experienced since 2010, lay-offs of thousands of journalists are the norm, as evidenced by the shutdown of popular newspapers and TV channels as well as by the overall unemployment rates in the field. In Athens, while many women have acquired management posts in wide-circulation newspapers, many permanent positions are being replaced by freelancing.
In the rest of the country, the new media reality has left every journalist vulnerable and forced to work under conditions of low pay and precarity. In this context, women are once again the most affected group “because of their nature”: pregnancy, motherhood, menstrual cycles are considered by many as “obstacles inhibiting our productivity”, “clouding our judgment” or “making us more sentimental” in a profession in which being “tough” and “determined” is the only way to get an exclusive reportage.
Yet when we do get an exclusive, we are rarely acknowledged in the same way men are. Mainstream journalistic discourse has a rigid “man’s look”, being “serious” and “rational”; any other form of journalistic style and discourse is automatically labeled as “sentimental”, deemed fit only for the yellow press and tabloids. The aforementioned publications create and reinforce a prevalent sexist working environment and set the only available framework for pursuing equal treatment in a male-dominated profession.
Things get worse when we write stories about extreme right groups, groups that support the overlooked and underrated role of women in society. It is not easy to forget the incident in June 2012 in which a woman journalist and member of the Communist party was slapped on live television by a member of the extreme right party Golden Dawn. And however unacceptable this act, a large number of viewers approved it because the woman was perceived as being “provocative”.
Being a woman journalist who writes about the refugee flows in Lesvos has been an extreme sport for some time now. In October 2016, as I was leaving the refugee camp of Moria, I was personally attacked by a 60-year-old man. When I tried to stop him from swearing at some women wearing burqas, telling him I was a journalist, he came towards me and started pulling my hair. I escaped by starting the engine of my car. I managed to take the women and their children along with me and drive them to a safer place.
I reported the incident to the police but the man still remains unidentified. In addition, extreme right groups in Lesvos reposted my own allegations about the incident, casting doubt on my honour and integrity with sexist comments, and claiming I was having sexual fantasies about elderly people.
A month later there was an evacuation by police of the central square of the island, which was being occupied by Afghan refugees. Members of extreme right groups who were among the crowd on the scene attacked me again with offensive and sexist comments when they saw me taking photos. I tried to explain that I was a journalist and I had official permission to be there. When I asked a policewoman for help, she replied my presence was “provocative”. If I had not been “rescued” by a member of the Communist party, which has its offices nearby, I do not know what would have happened to me on that day.
Obviously, I am not the only woman journalist under attack. There was a Facebook post concerning a colleague of mine with the title “Hang her”. Another colleague was verbally attacked and threatened while covering a story and the police did not provide any protection, being allegedly busy with “more serious matters”. After that incident, she is seriously considering giving up active journalism. She is terrified of leaving her house unaccompanied.
In May 2018, fifteen professional journalists in Lesvos made a public call for the protection of press freedom, as well as journalists’ personal safety. Having met with the chief of police and the general prosecutor without results, we were left with no choice but to stage a day-long strike. We reiterated in the strongest possible terms that we were being attacked because we were refusing to produce disinformation and instead revealing the truth. Disinformation such as “the refugees eat stray dogs”, or “the refugees urinate in the churches and destroy them”, or “journalists are funded by NGOs” are some illustrative examples of the ongoing extreme-right and racism-motivated propaganda on the island.
Since September 2018, the sexist attacks have intensified. On 6 September, a story I had written came out, revealing attacks by the extreme right against a local girl who was taken for a Muslim because she had a scarf wrapped around her head. On 8 September, two colleagues of mine and I covered a story about African asylum seekers training for the local football championship. After the interviews, we took a photo with the footballers and posted it on Facebook for a limited audience. On the same day, members of extreme right groups, from the village where the young girl was attacked, posted my photo with the footballers publicly on Facebook, stating I was having sexual relationships with “n*****s”. They used other sexist, racist and offensive expressions, leading eventually to intervention by the Council of Europe and a number of Greek politicians. Criminal charges have been brought against eight individuals but only one so far has been summoned to court and his trial was postponed.
The Council of Europe explicitly highlighted the sexist nature of these attacks; the same did not happen in Greece. But we are fighting back. By publicizing every attack and mobilizing the Association of Journalists of the Peloponnese, Epirus and Islands (ESIEPIN) and our Panhellenic Federation of Journalists’ Unions (POESY), we are succeeding in making the problem known both nationally and internationally.
Because sexism is a concept that goes hand-in-hand with Fascism and it is becoming dominant in public discourse, we need a protective shield. If journalists are to promote press freedom and gender equality, online sexual harassment should be prosecuted by the state. Media organizations must include women’s voices and perspectives and raise an outcry when women journalists are verbally abused and/or assaulted. And our professional associations must create special spaces for women journalists where they can have access to legal and psychological support.