Co-ordinated Hate Campaign Thrives Under Complicity of Silent Majority

    Aug 17, 2022
    Woman typing on a laptop

    OTTAWA—Women in news media are in peril, mainly due to white men.

    Lisa LaFlamme’s unceremonious departure from CTV News on Monday, as described by her fire-starting video, announced that she was “blindsided” by the decision. In true strong woman fashion, LaFlamme did not go quietly into the night like a good little girl, rather she set off a Twitter maelstrom on her way out. Well done. Michael Melling, who was just promoted to head CTV News in January of this year, has some ‘splainin’ to do.

    Naturally, I had thoughts.

    But for me, that peril reached my inbox. On Canada Day (I was right to be suspicious of this year’s celebrations), three female journalists of colour, including myself, received targeted hate mail from what looked like the same sender. It read like much of the hate mail I’ve received throughout the years—littered with racism, sexism, and specifically, misogynoir—so I tweeted about it and went about my day. No muss, no fuss, right?

    Fast forward a month later with an email sent to Saba Eitizaz, from TheToronto Star, that mentioned Rachel Gilmore of Global News and myself. I will spare you the details, but this email was more sinister in construction and used terminology from the far right. It included death threats, threats of gang rape and of course, racism, misogyny, et al. (Is it strange that the gang rape threats were more disturbing than the death threats?) Since then, we have received more emails and the net has widened to journalists in Ottawa, Toronto, and Edmonton (yes, Edmonton). We are all female journalists and most of us are of colour.

    These are hate crimes.

    The co-ordinated attacks have become more personal, providing details of our past work, and more macabre. The attackers are monitoring our social media, widening their offensive to include female journalists who show us public support. When we tried reporting these attacks to the police, as Gilmore’s TikToks have shown, it resulted in another round of attacks, whether it be in the form of dismissiveness, contempt, or outright sneering. One was a female police officer, proving once again that diversity means nothing to anti-racism or anti-misogyny. This reaction was uniform between the Toronto Police Service and the Ottawa Police Service. On top of that, as someone who has been made aware of the camaraderie between the police and the convoy, who’s to say our details will be safe with the police? These are all the calculations racialized women must do when contacting law enforcement. They have proven time and time again that they’re not here for us, and this time was no different.

    So, what does one do? Demand action.

    Amongst the three of us—Saba, Rachel, and myself—we immediately informed our top bosses what was happening and impressed upon them the importance of a response. We then did something unprecedented: we got three news media organizations together, plus the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), to co-ordinate a response to online attacks. Firstly, we identified the issue and demanded action from both politicians and the police chiefs who had been thwarting our attempts at reporting these threats. We published an open letter to: the chiefs of the Ottawa and Toronto Police, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Justice Minister David Lametti, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien, and RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.

    Secondly, the public editor of the Toronto Star, Donovan Vincent, published an opinion piece to open the discussion: “In the past week alone, a horrible message was sent to Toronto Star podcast host Saba Eitizaz, a journalist of South Asian background. The filthy, cowardly and pathetic note—the sender didn’t leave a real name or contact info and hid behind an encrypted email address—also mentioned Hill Times columnist and podcast host Erica Ifill, a Black woman, and Rachel Gilmore, a reporter for Global News who is white.

    Thirdly, Bad + Bitchy hosted a Twitter space entitled “Protecting BIPOC/Marginalized Journalists” (replay linked) to bring people together to talk about this issue from a lens that doesn’t centre whiteness, which these discussions so often do. About 780 people came through and participated in a discussion that lasted two hours and 40 minutes.

    By not addressing this at the outset, the reality is that things will get worse.

    And we’ve seen worse. On June 28, 2018, a gunman walked into the office of the Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Annapolis, Md., and opened fire. Five people died and several others were injured in the shooting. Jarrod Ramos, the gunman, sent letters to the staff at the newspaper, threatening to attack the newsroom and its staff. The reason for his anger at the paper was a report they had published seven years earlier on Ramos’ guilty plea in a sexual harassment case. Misogyny usually features in mass shootings, as I have written previously.

    The reality is things won’t get better for a while. The rise of the far right means that BIPOC and other marginalized journalists are under siege; the coronation of Pierre Poilievre as Conservative leader will only make things worse. The constant demonizing of journalists, calls to defund the CBC, and overall vitriol directed at the Fourth Estate will encourage these white men who are assailing us to take their rage offline. Just as Donald Trump’s rhetoric of fake news had created the environment for the Capital Gazette shooting years earlier, Poilievre and his sidekick, Jenni Byrne of The Herle Burlypodcast, are doing the same. They are egging on a political environment that will result in aggressive—and possibly fatal—acts against journalists and no one seems to call them out on it. But it didn’t start with Poilievre; Erin O’Toole, the Great Conservative Moderate, also engaged in the rhetoric of defunding the CBC.

    As online business journal Quartz reminds us, “This isn’t simple propaganda: Fake news doesn’t necessarily, or only, serve to promote a government, its vision, and its work. It instead builds a murky news environment in which all trust is lost and facts cease to matter. That is precisely the kind of environment that fascism built in Italy before [the Second World War], one in which totalitarian regimes are able to thrive.”

    In order to control information, the press is demonized to weaken its influence. And this is all done with the tacit complicity of a silent majority, or what we know as “moderates” and “centrists.” When a group of far-right white men develop a list of female journalists and female journalists of colour to target, that’s fascism.

    Speaking of silence, where are all these good men I keep hearing about? What is evident is the most powerful voices of Canadian news media and politics have been silent. The prime minister can tweet about Salman Rushdie and the peril befalling journalists abroad, but ignores female journalists and female journalists of colour at home while waving his feminist branding. Bigwigs like Andrew Coyne, John Ivison, and Stephen Maher, who once tried to cast Tamara Lich as a political prisoner, have refused to even address the situation, which is the bare minimum. White women in journalism have also been relatively quiet, except for Mercedes Stephenson. What is clear is that the women who have been targeted have been left on our own with very little support from the media or political establishment, beyond our own organizations. And it is this silence that has permitted some of the greatest atrocities known to humankind.

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.