Contributor: Nebechi Lauretta Ezeugbor
Media responses to SGBV
The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation has introduced new forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) such as online bullying, sexual harassment, image-based sexual violence among others. This amplifies the problem and further impedes access to justice in Africa.
Amidst this growing trend is the relatively low attention that has been paid to how misinformation and disinformation erode the gains made in women’s rights and the rights of sexual minorities. Advancements in technology, too, facilitate more seamless and coordinated gendered disinformation.
In propagating disinformation, four approaches have been postulated as being applied by disinformation agents to achieve their objectives: dismiss, distort, distract and dismay. These approaches, when applied jointly, perpetuate misinformation and serve the purpose of silencing the voices of survivors of SGBV and ultimately, precludes their access to justice; they refrain from taking any necessary step available to ensure perpetrators are brought to book.
Gendered disinformation equally targets human rights defenders, activists and journalists who are critical of oppressive structures. The aim is often to discredit and delegitimize their voices in order to weaken their capacity to cause change. This has a ripple effect on the larger society as it distorts public understanding of the issue and discourages people from speaking up. This is especially the case for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence as gendered disinformation further entrenches the culture of silence and shame.
AI-generated media manipulation introduces new forms of sexual and gender-based violence that needs to be addressed. Most threatening is the prevalence of non-consensual deepnudes and sexual deepfakes that directly violate consent and bodily autonomy by using artificial intelligence to digitally insert an individual’s image into sexual videos and photos without their consent. The technology needed to make non-consensual sexual deepfakes is now more easily accessible, in most cases requiring a simple digital device. This presents a dangerous trend because of how easily deepnudes can be distributed online and how difficult it is to takedown especially when they are shared on encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
In the fight against sexual and gender-based violence, the lack of access to justice remains a barrier. There have been significant gains over the years through consolidated efforts by critical stakeholders including feminist groups, civil society and the media. However, effective access to justice is limited by structural discrimination against women and other sexual minorities which ensures that appropriate procedures for investigation and prosecution are not followed. Misinformation and disinformation contribute significantly to the lack of access to justice. It discourages survivors from speaking up, provides a liar’s dividend to perpetrators, promotes repressive laws and policies, pushes false narratives to counter survivors’ stories, delegitimizes the voices of activists and organisations that speak up for survivors, and promotes unequal relations in the society.
WITNESS has recently launched a media literacy campaign named #VerifyBeforeSharing to help combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation. This resource-based campaign incorporates learnings from participants at our mis/disinformation West Africa convening and seeks to build resilience in communities most at risk of mis/disinformation and empower them to push back against it. The campaign will support communities with the right skills and tools to identify the threats and prioritise solutions that are contextually relevant to the African continent.
Misinformation and disinformation as a human rights issue
While the relative lack of international treaties encapsulates mis/disinformation, the international legal space is beginning to identify it as a stand-alone norm under international law. For example, the recent Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and “Fake News”, Disinformation and Propaganda by special rapporteurs from regional human rights bodies and the UN is a significant soft law on this issue.
The right to freedom of expression contained under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) comprises three core tenets: the right to hold opinions without interference (freedom of opinion); the right to seek and receive information (access to information); and the right to impart information (freedom of expression). The right to freedom of expression embraces expressions that may be false or regarded by others as offensive; however, this right may be subject to certain restrictions on the grounds of public health, interest or security.
“The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of the ICCPR carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary; (a) For respect for the rights or reputation of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”
– (Article 19(3) ICCPR)
Misinformation and disinformation may directly undermine public health, interest and security as evidenced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic demonstrated the dangers of mis/disinformation in propagating dangerous narratives including disinformation that relied on the negative depiction of women. Mis/disinformation causes significant reputational damage particularly to women and sexual minorities who already suffer systemic discrimination. Further, the deployment of targeted disinformation tactics often with the use of bots and other forms of manipulated media drown out authentic voices of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, which directly restricts their right to freedom of expression.
Effective access to justice is an essential right enshrined in numerous human rights instruments. Women and sexual minorities encounter a number of obstacles with respect to access to justice within and outside of the legal framework. Gendered disinformation upholds negative stereotypes and cultural norms that make it difficult for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to access justice. Furthermore, the right to a fair hearing of survivors of SGBV is directly threatened by the spread of mis/disinformation which negatively sways public opinion and inadvertently influences the judicial system to respond to public preferences.
Download WITNESS’ newest Video as Evidence resource here.
Harmful gendered narratives make it difficult to repeal repressive laws against women and sexual minorities. It also contributes to ensuring that domestic laws which properly define actions of violence against women as crimes are not enacted. This also restricts access to remedies and reparation for survivors of SGBV.
The role of different actors in exacerbating this threat
Gendered disinformation incubates rape apology, promotes a vicious cycle of sexual and gendered violence against women and girls, normalises a culture of silence, and reinforces victim-blaming/shaming.
The common misinformation rhetoric is the belief that justice is unattainable for survivors of SGBV. In Nigeria, this is not entirely inaccurate due to a number of factors, such as the slow pace of the investigation; the long and cumbersome litigation process; and the utility of appeals up to the apex court. These processes take years before a survivor may conclusively be assured of justice. On the other hand, law enforcement agencies and their agents, have by their actions, contributed to affirming the mis/disinformation that justice is unattainable. Evidence from documented and undocumented reports show that perpetrators have applied law enforcement agents to terrorise, subdue and frustrate the cause of survivors seeking justice.
In addition to the above, there are the myths, now widespread owing to the ubiquity of social media, about the demographic of persons possessing the inclination to sexual and gender-based violence and the nature of sexual violence in itself. The traditional or conventional profile associated with an abuser is that of an underachiever, a mental health patient, a drunken reprobate, a serial offender or an ex-convict. This operates as a shield for perpetrators who do not fit these descriptions and, in turn, gives rise to second-guessing a survivor’s narrative. Here, the perpetrator is viewed as innocent and speculated as being witch-hunted by the survivor to score a personal vendetta. This often leads to an erroneous and malicious conclusion that the rape was consensual:
“The media depictions and common conceptions of what a rapist looks like, and what rape as an act looks like, is actually part of the problem our legal systems face when trying to prosecute offenders. These biases put roadblocks that stop justice. Juries and judges are just as susceptible to these biases as the average person. It’s an important step towards ending rape culture that we adjust our views to see rapists as they actually are, not who we perceive capable of the crime.”
A cursory view of digital media will reveal that some newspaper publications around rape, women’s bodies and autonomy are dangerous and promote the mis/disinformation that women are contributory to and indeed a foundational cause of rape. In this article, the author argues, albeit illogically, that it is not inconceivable that women, today, are morally decadent, overcharge the sexual urges of men by dressing indecently and behaving in sexually suggestive ways in public. These views were reiterated by the same author in a sequel, even after the original article was taken down after an online petition against it. The approach adopted by disinformation merchants and, by consequence, agents of misinformation, is to distort and distract, which is, without doubt, the intent informing the preceding article under contemplation.
By distorting the crime of rape, the author failed to recognize the reasons incidents of rape exist along a spectrum, none of which can ever be the fault of a survivor. Rather than address rape from the standpoint of it being an egregious crime against humanity, the author distracts by creating extenuating circumstances for perpetrators of sexual violence. We have seen how in wartime and conflict situations, sexual violence is deployed as a military, political and economic strategy by combatants or non-state armed actors to humiliate, terrorise and torture their opposition. Here, women and girls and men and boys are viewed not as humans but as war tools and objects to be abused as a form of war methodology against the opposing side and to assert dominance. Another factor the author failed to recognise – whilst simultaneously applying a harmful reductionist appraisement of rape in his work as being a consequence of women’s dressing and (or) behaviour – is that rape is an attempt to assert power and authority, to make the victim-survivor feel vulnerable, weak and (or) lacking in self-worth.
Similarly, in 2017, in response to a War Against Rape protest staged in Lagos, Nigeria, a religious organisation asserted that rape is a result of indecent dressing, thereby implying that it is the victim’s fault. This only pushes falsehoods that manifest in problematic societal dispositions and misdirection on issues of rape. Hypothetically, supposing one were to entertain the possibility that this disinformation is accurate; why do we have cases or situations where minors and fully-clothed women get sexually violated?
Consent education and discourses surrounding it are increasingly gaining traction in recent times. The falsehood that “No” could sometimes be “Yes” is deeply entrenched in the collective social psyche of many. When a woman or man says “No” or withdraws consent to sexual activity mid-way, rather than respect this negatory statement, perpetrators disregard the same and seek acquiescence from other means such as purported or assumed affirmative body language or arousal. Here, the survivor’s narrative is only acceptable when in consonance with the tenets of sexual purity culture. The ideal face of rape, rooted in centuries of misconception and believed by many, involves the use of brute force, and the exertion of physical violence. This has caused untold harm to many survivors who do not fit the visual typology of a rape survivor and it has denied them access to justice owing to the absence of proof in cases where violence is absent, and chastity cannot be established as violated. Negating the existence of sexual violence due to the absence of physical injury remains a significant barrier in investigation procedures and accessing justice for survivors. This continually makes investigating and pursuing justice for SGBV a long and arduous process for the victims and survivors.
WITNESS’ newest Video as Evidence resource ‘Using Video to Support Justice and Accountability for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence’ provides in-depth research and guidance from expert practitioners, preparation and assessment tools, case studies, and practical exercises on how video can be gathered and used to document the legal elements of sexual and gender-based violence crimes. To help support deeper accountability, it is WITNESS’ hope that high-quality, trustworthy, and actionable video documentation can strengthen fact-finding and monitoring reports, can be used in criminal justice processes, to bring perpetrators to justice, and to achieve other forms of justice for victims and survivors of SGBV. You can also follow our campaign on social media: #WeBelieveAllSurvivors.
STAND TO END RAPE INITIATIVE (STER) is cognizant of the reality that mis/disinformation is usually targeted at women and a notable means of achieving the same is through Image-based Sexual Abuse (IBSA), which can, in turn, precipitate physical and sexual violence offline. This informed the convening of a Webinar titled: Trend, Pattern or Crime: A Critical Appraisal of Image-Based Sexual Abuse (IBSA) in the 21st Century in December 2021. This Webinar was the result of a partnership between STER and The Attorney-General Alliance, Africa to commemorate the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence for the year 2021. The Webinar featured Lawyers and Prosecutors from diverse jurisdictions and seminal discussions surrounding myths and mis/disinformation on IBSA, a form of SGBV, were elaborated upon. The insight and knowledge gained through this Webinar will be leveraged to make it incumbent on law enforcement agencies and institutions within the justice system to appropriately redress IBSA with adequate sanctions and ensure restorative justice for survivors.
Nkem Agunwa is the Project Coordinator for Africa at WITNESS. Her focus is on countering the proliferation of mis/disinformation that incites violence and undermines the trustworthiness of video evidence. With almost a decade’s experience as a digital communications campaigner, Nkem has engaged extensively on freedom of expression, police brutality, democracy and good governance.
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is a gender equality advocate with seven (7) years of experience developing and implementing innovative strategies and programs. She is the Executive Director of Stand To End Rape (STER) Initiative, a youth-led social justice organisation based in Nigeria. Oluwaseun Ayodeji is the first-ever 2020 Global Citizen Prize for Nigeria’s Hero, was recognised by the United Nations as a Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Commonwealth Young Person for the Year 2019 and in the same year named as one of TIME’s 100 NEXT.
Nebechi Lauretta Ezeugbor is passionate about human rights, advocacy, access to justice for sexual and gender-based violence survivors and promoting gender equality and fairness. As STER’s Human Rights Lawyer, she oversees client management, litigation, legal advice and support to survivors and liaises with external partners on best legal strategies and compliance.