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Women journalists targeted in co-ordinated campaign of hate: Canadian Association of Journalists

Warning: Readers may find some of the details in this story distressing

In her six years in journalism, Fatima Syed estimates she has received about 150 messages of hate. The vile messages arrive in her email inbox, or come in replies to her social media posts.

In emails she has shown to CTV News, Syed is called a variant of the N-word and is referred to as a “Nazi c**t.” She has been threatened with rape and told that she should be put on her knees and “shotgunned, Afghan style.”

Syed, a climate reporter with the online publication, The Narwhal, says the hate mail often follows reports she files on ethnic and immigrant communities. But the messages are rarely about the issues raised in the articles she writes.

“They tend to be personal attacks. They attack the colour of my skin, my background, my identity or my relationship with countries I’ve lived in and my relationship with the communities I’m from,” says Syed, who is a Muslim Pakistani-Canadian. “They don’t want you to exist on the platform you have.”

What Syed has experienced is part of a disturbing trend in attacks against media workers that, according to the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), has reached a “fever pitch.”

The CAJ says there was an increase in online abuse and hate directed at reporters during the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa. Now that the protests have fizzled, the CAJ says the attacks have morphed into what appears to be a co-ordinated online campaign directed at women journalists, especially those who are persons of colour.

Syed, who is also a CAJ board member, says the perpetrators use encrypted email, adding that messages are becoming increasingly threatening.

“I’m terrified that someone has sent six of my female colleagues an email that says their faces are on a wall and that they will come for them in some capacity.”

In a statement earlier this month, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino called online hate, intimidation and harassment of female, racialized and Indigenous journalists “blatantly unacceptable.”

“This alarming trend represents a threat not only to the safety of individuals involved, but to the independence of the media, which is a pillar of our democracy,” he said.

Mendicino said he’d met with representatives from the CAJ to discuss what support the federal government can offer. The minister also said that there are plans to meet with both Toronto Police and Ottawa Police to discuss their response to reporters' concerns.

“It is increasingly evident that online abuse towards journalists, especially women, is a disconcerting issue for the media and the rest of our society. The personal toll that such threats and hate have is profound and can cause lasting damage to one of our core democratic institutions,” he added.


“This is an organized campaign to threaten and intimidate journalists into silence and undermine the freedom of the press in Canada,” says CAJ President, Brent Jolly.

According to the association, women make up more than 52 per cent of the country’s media workers, while visible minorities account for roughly 25 per cent of newsroom staff.

In the past few days, dozens of female reporters who write for online publications and work for broadcasters have reported racist and misogynist messages. Most of the messages come from anonymous accounts, but a few including Jeremy MacKenzie, the de facto leader of Diagalon which is a far-right separatist movement, openly post their rants against women reporters on YouTube and the messaging app Telegram.

Some journalists are fighting back by sharing the racist and sexist messages on Twitter to raise public awareness. Others have reported the abuse to police only to have their complaints diminished, or to be told by investigators that it’s unlikely perpetrators will be found.

Jolly says police have to start doing their job.“We’re looking at the relative impunity with which these individuals can spew this hateful rhetoric. There hasn’t been any active effort to enforce any laws,” he said.


In an open letter addressed to federal ministers in the departments of justice, public safety, heritage and women and gender, along with the RCMP commissioner and Ontario’s Attorney General, the association is calling for concerted action to protect journalists. The CAJ wants a streamlined process established for reporting hate that recognizes patterns of abuse and for complainants to receive regular updates on investigations.

Part of the problem can be attributed to insufficient data. Toronto Police say there were 257 incidents of hate in 2021, a 22 per cent increase from the previous year. Ottawa Police say there was a 6 per cent increase in reported incidents of hate in the first six months of this year.

Of the 164 cases logged by OPS between January 1 and June 30, 129 incidents were deemed criminal in nature. The statistics break down complaints by ethnicity and religion, but not by gender, nor by profession.

Steph Wechsler, managing editor of J-Source, an online publication about the journalism industry in Canada, says the tepid response of police to reporter complaints could be attributed to an “incomplete picture” of the danger journalists face.

Wechsler is in the process of creating an open data source that allows journalists to input the type of threat they receive as well as track their race, gender and job status. In addition to analyzing the police response, Wechsler also hopes the data will reveal which reporters are under attack, whether they are full-time staff or freelancers, and what employers can do to improve safety measures.

“What is the impact on racialized women in women in particular and what is being done, or not being done to keep everyone safe? Solutions have been very slow to come here for a problem that has been mounting in particular to white supremacy and online radicalization and its deep rootedness in this country,” Wechsler said.


There is a fear among reporters that online threats will turn into physical violence. It has happened before.

In 2018, five employees of The Capital Gazette in Maryland were killed in a mass shooting in the newspaper’s office. ABC News reported that the perpetrator, Jarrod Ramos, began threatening journalists at The Capital after the newspaper reported on a stalking allegation linked to Ramos.

Former Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says Canadians shouldn’t cling to the belief that what happens in the United States can’t happen here.

“There was a tendency before to believe that the U.S. is different than us, but we are seeing the same thing here. It’s worrying and Canadians should not be naive. I say that as someone who has been on the receiving end.”

In the six years she was a parliamentarian, McKenna says she has received thousands of hate filled sexist messages. In 2019, the online misogyny McKenna faced spilled over into real life. The “C word” was spray painted on the window of her campaign office in downtown Ottawa. She says police investigated that incident as a case of gender-based hate, but no one was ever arrested. In fact, McKenna says despite filing several dozen police complaints not a single investigation resulted in a charge.

McKenna says the hostility directed at journalists online is worse than what she experienced. She says a concerted effort by law enforcement, politicians and social media companies is needed to stamp out the abhorrent behavior. She says police need to investigate these threats, while social media companies need to remove those who espouse hate and their abusive posts.

Many reporters subjected to rampant online vitriol cover Canadian politics.

McKenna, a trained lawyer, says the focus should not be on drafting new laws which takes too long. When it comes to safety, McKenna says immediate results are necessary and is calling on politicians to sign a code of conduct

“It would also be unacceptable for some politicians to go on personal attacks against other parliamentarians and journalists because they’re riling up their base and folks think it's okay to take pot shots online. We’ve seen many cases in both Canada and the U.S. where it goes offline.”

As for Syed, the online hate has forced her to change her behaviour. She doesn’t comment on social media as much as she did in the past and is careful of what she says online and off. She has been afraid and has walked home with “eyes on the back of (her) head,” but refuses to let fear silence her.

“That’s a feeling I push aside always because journalism matters more. The impact of journalism and the accountability and public service it provides matters a great deal to me.”

Syed remains resolute in her commitment to reporting on marginalized ethnic communities - now she’s relying on the politicians and police to keep her safe in the essential role she plays in a democracy. Top Stories

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