Welcome to  Part 1 of our June 2024 Inspirational Interview with Dr Luisa Ortiz Pérez, founder of Vita-Activa.org in Mexico. 

Dr Pérez  is a consultant in nonviolent communication, creative leadership and care-aware management. As the co-founder of Vita-Activa.org, she conceptualised and launched a helpline to aid women journalists and activists facing online violence and gender-based harassment. She has worked for NPR, WNYC and the BBC, and was an executive manager for Yahoo! Hispanic Americas and Televisa Interactive Media. A former JSK Journalism Fellow from Stanford University, she holds a PhD in Ideology and Discourse Analysis from the University of Essex and is a certified Psychological First Aid Provider from Johns Hopkins University.

Part 2 of Dr Pérez’ interview will be published 3 June 2024.

All photos are courtesy of Dr Luisa Ortiz Pérez.

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

I was made aware of the rise of online violence against women journalists, activists and human rights defenders as social media usage was rising in Latin America. At around 2007, Twitter had become the main source of first-hand information in the region, Facebook was a must for politics, business and social change dialogue and news sharing, and blogging was indeed an activity many of my peers shared.

It was in workshops for social media literacy and strategic digital communications that I began hearing and witnessing unusual attention and disproportionate reactions to the opinions and content created by women and LGBTQI+ people. They would come to me and ask for ideas on how to counter it and how to make it stop. 

Yet, it would take us years to develop a language, to understand that social media platforms would not take the harm seriously until it was too late, and that overall patriarchy had occupied the digital space where women and non-binary folks were innovating, creating and communicating.


2. Your feminist advocacy work is spread across three different roles as a bilingual journalist focused on women’s human rights issues, the founder of the nonprofit Vita-Activa, and the head consultant at Prooftype. How have your experiences in each role informed and influenced your overall approach to the fight to end VAW?

As a feminist editor and producer I could no longer ignore that gender-based violence was a reality every woman in the industry faced. The level of violence reflected systemic violent tendencies: women journalists demonised for doing their work on one side; hate speech, hyper-sexualisation, conservative politics and censorship on the other, increasing the risks they face online and offline. 

In Mexico, women journalists are generally disrespected and discredited, even by political leaders. I saw and heard my colleagues questioning the reasons for the violence and realising it was the fight of our lifetime. In 2018, I began alongside Estrella Soria a longitudinal study across Latin America  to study the way in which feminist collectives care for each other and care for others. Hacks de Vida (Life Hacks) is the result of the study, a guide to better understanding online gender violence in Latin America and how to support those who face it. 

As a result of the study and of the conversations with allies in the region I founded Vita-Activa.org in 2019 as a non-profit initiative that provides online support and a solutions laboratory for women and LGBTQI+ journalists, activists, organisers and human and women rights defenders who are facing violence online, harassment, stress and burnout. All services are confidential, anonymous and no cost and they are offered in English and Spanish.

Prooftype Consulting is a space where I have been developing new strategies and creative models to engage people into care-aware strategies and creative leadership. I found that theatre and dance were very good vehicles to decompress and change moods. A Human Condition is a play and an immersive journey for and by journalists to open the conversation about what makes us happy, what hurts us and especially what we need help with as professionals. 


3. In your many years of working in the media in both the U.S. and Mexico, what have you found are the particular challenges that female journalists face when reporting about violence against women and girls?

I have never been a reporter. I have been an editor and a producer in digital media since 2006. Yet what I have seen in my experience was not the surge of gender-based violence against journalists but a growing awareness of it. It became clear that perpetrators of patriarchal violence against women journalists would use social media tools to perpetuate the kind of violence geared to silence and control. Once violence against digital bodies was well-documented and clearly identified, women journalists and women in general became more open to using the internet and social media to speak about the violence they were experiencing. In contrast, the social media platforms and the tools women journalists have at their disposal to counter violence and mitigate the hate they receive are no match to the level of hate and harm perpetuated. Some of the challenges I have seen women journalisms experience are:  

  • the accumulation of gender-based violence with other forms of violence they also experience in life with their partners, families and in their communities; 
  • physical and digital violence as interconnected phenomena; 
  • mis/dis/fake information tactics to discredit women;
  • “mobbing” and mass scale coordinated attacks; 
  • state-led digital surveillance via cellphone intervention and face recognition tools;
  • newsroom aggression and workplace harassment from colleagues, editors, sources and interviewees; 
  • workplace inequities, pay gap and lack of maternity rights.


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. Your nonprofit Vita-Activa is a helpline that provides online support and strategic solutions for female journalists and activists. How did Vita-Activa come to be founded?

As I mentioned in a previous question, gender-based violence was the tip of the iceberg in the erosion of freedom of expression and hatred against women. The helpline is an act of rebellion and a response to the lack of emotional support and sorority women experience. For us it was clear that when digital violence is being experienced by journalists there are no mechanisms to process the stress and trauma they are going through.  Support systems are designed to provide solutions and not deal with the long term effects of the harm. 

Vita Activa is a response to the need to address hurt and harm before we deal with the technical solutions required to mitigate the harm that was done. It has never been clearer that processing adrenaline, fear, and anxiety is required to address the physical, mental and emotional effects of online violence. More than 85% of people exposed to intense trauma recover well when they receive psychological first aid support. Psychological first aid is the mental health analogue to physical first aid. It can be defined as a supportive and compassionate presence designed to stabilise and mitigate acute distress as well as facilitate access to continued care. In the particular case of online gender-based violence, continued care would mean technical and legal aid.


5. Mainstream media across the world has been criticised for either ignoring or poorly reporting stories of violence against women (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?

Improving the way the media approaches and reports on VAW is crucial for raising awareness, fostering understanding, and contributing to the broader efforts to address this issue. Media outlets can enhance their approach by prioritising the well-being and dignity of survivors by reporting with sensitivity and respect as follows:

  • Be aware that sensationalism and graphic details commonly used in media retraumatise survivors or contribute to normalising violence. 
  • Use inclusive and non-blaming language that places responsibility on perpetrators rather than victims. Challenge and avoid perpetuating stereotypes and stigmatising language.
  • Ensure diverse representation in reporting, including the perspectives of women from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and LGBTQI+ communities.
  • Avoid reinforcing stereotypes and victim blaming.
  • Provide journalists and media professionals with training on reporting VAW, including the complexities of the issue and the potential impact of media coverage.
  • Foster a culture of empathy and understanding among media professionals who are disproportionately victims of harassment, violence and hate speech.

By adopting these practises, media outlets can contribute to changing societal attitudes, challenging harmful norms, and playing a positive role in efforts to end violence against women. Responsible reporting is not only ethically sound but also plays a vital role in shaping public perceptions and fostering a culture of respect and equality.