Welcome to Part 1 of our April 2024 Inspirational Interview with Arzu Geybullayeva, an Azerbaijani writer and columnist with a special focus on digital authoritarianism and its implications on human rights and press freedom.

Arzu has written for Al Jazeera, Eurasianet, CODA, Open Democracy, and Radio Free Europe, with a byline on CNN International. She is also a regional editor for South Caucasus and Turkey at Global Voices.  In 2014, Arzu was featured on BBC 100 Women Changemakers. Since 2015, she has been involved in various projects focusing on the safety of women journalists online. Arzu is based in Istanbul from where she continues her journalism work as well as her engagement in projects that continue to focus on the safety of women journalists online, platform accountability, and transparency. 

Part 2 of Arzu’s interview will be published 8 April, 2024.

All photos are courtesy of Arzu Geybulla.

1. How and why did you join the movement to end violence against women (VAW)? 

I am a survivor myself. I experienced physical, psychological, and sexual violence as a child, in my teens and later as an adult. I never wanted any other woman or child to experience what I did. But it was not like a conscious goal I set for myself. It all happened naturally. Although I do not belong to a physical movement per se, writing about violence and helping victims makes me part of the movement. And I have only recently come out with my own story. After years of suppressing what happened, with the help of my therapist, I slowly started realising that keeping it all inside was only making it worse. 

And of course, I come into this movement having also been exposed to online harassment because of my journalism and my views. People don’t like to hear hard truths when it does not serve their interests and so in many ways, I brought that wave of harassment upon myself, with my own hands through my writing. This led me to join another movement, calling for the safety of women journalists online. 


2. How has your many years of experience as a journalist informed and influenced your overall approach to the fight to end VAW?

The first thing I learned was that silence only made matters worse. Finding my own voice, as well as writing about the voices of other women, was important for many reasons: documenting; humanising the victims who often become just numbers or initials; seeking policy change both at the domestic and international levels; identifying allies and joining forces. This is not to say my engagement or involvement in the movement has made a significant impact; women continue to face violence, online and offline. But I learned through my work that being the voice and giving the voice strengthened the narrative around the fight on violence against women. 

But years of experience also taught me a lesson: trusting policy-making institutions will not get rid of violence against women. Regardless of the number of conversations I have personally had through international intermediaries with platforms and companies, almost no measures were taken and those that have been promised were never delivered. Harassment on platforms is rampant, complaint mechanisms are weak if not non-existent, and response mechanisms lack pre-emptive measures and often are resorted to after the fact. What good is that? 


3.What are the particular challenges that female journalists face when reporting about violence against women and girls?

Violence breeds violence. When I spoke up about my experience of online harassment, I got more harassment. All the humiliation, belittling, and reputational damage were apparently not enough, because I was still around and still speaking up. I have also seen how in some cultures violence against women is justified and is often blamed on the victim–it was her behaviour that triggered the violence, or her will to study or work or have a life outside the norms prescribed by her families and relatives. 

The challenge is that it is not just about writing; it is about changing mindsets and that is a difficult task when all institutions in place are against women or against taking solid, impactful measures to combat violence and change people’s minds and opinions. 

If a child is growing up thinking that it’s totally fine to commit violence or normal to be on the receiving end of violence simply because of their gender, that is a problem that journalists can’t resolve. It requires intervention by various state institutions and changing education, which is where the foundation of this “normalisation” notion forms. 


4. According to a 2022 global report that has interviewed over 1,000 female journalists from 15 countries, the majority of female journalists have faced online gender-based violence and this is one of the biggest threats to press freedom and has contributed to the femicide of female journalists. You yourself have personally received many online threats as a journalist. What do you think can be done to prevent and reduce online VAW towards female journalists?

I can safely say, and I am sorry for sounding like a pessimist, not much. Platforms have taken zero accountability for hate and trolling. That is partly because the content moderators are often automated robots, completely unaware of local contexts and the nuances in local languages; and partly because it takes time and effort to remove inauthentic accounts. Why waste resources on something like that when these platforms are driven by profit generation, not safety?

Unfortunately, it boils down to individual journalists safeguarding themselves. Being more digitally literate about security practices won’t reduce harassment because perpetrators will still find you. 

My basic advice to journalists facing online harassment is to know what it is, have a support network, document the harassment, reach out to organisations that work with platforms who can help you recover your hacked account or report the abuse you are facing, and pretty much continue the work that you do. Because more often than not, a journalist does not have the luxury of taking time off from work, especially for freelance journalists.  And finally, know your online presence–where you are, what you post, who is following you, how much information there is out there about you–in order to help yourself reduce the possible platforms where harassment and online targeting may occur. 


5. On the flip side, mainstream media across the world have been criticised for either ignoring or poorly reporting stories about VAW whether as an issue in general or in terms of particular cases. How do you think the media can improve the way they approach and report VAW?

It pains me to see the state of the media these days. Commissioning articles for clicks is not what journalism is about. I find solace in one thing–that while mainstream media may have lost its moral compass, there are niche newsrooms that remain committed to the job even though they do not have the same reach. And I am afraid we journalists cannot change the corporate interests of media bosses. So here is another pessimistic answer–I do not think there is a way to improve how mainstream media approaches and reports violence against women. Yet again, the responsibility falls on the journalists to find alternative platforms where these stories matter. 

Informing the public has never been harder than it is these days, which sounds strange. With all the social media platforms out there and endless amount of content generated, it should be easier. But actually, it has the opposite effect. Think of the amount of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda people are exposed to on a daily basis. All of this makes it rather impossible to improve reporting.