How political unrest resulted in sexual assaults and threats against women journalists in Brazil

  • By
  • August 16, 2023

By Rafaela Sinderski, originally published by the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji)


Being a journalist in politically polarized contexts means taking risks, especially when one is a woman and/or an LGBTQ+ person. In 2022, a year marked by one of Brazil's most fiercely contested elections, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji, by its Portuguese acronym) recorded 557 cases of aggression against media professionals, with 26% involving some form of gender-based violence, more or less explicit. Among these cases, 5% were categorized as episodes of sexual violence, with 57.1% taking place online. These figures are part of the monitoring of general attacks and gender-based violence against the press conducted by Abraji in partnership with the Latin American network Voces del Sur (VdS).

Last year, the monitoring identified sexual violence as threats of rape and cases of online and offline harassment. There were seven such incidents throughout 2022—meaning that in seven different situations, journalists fell victim to sexual attacks while trying to carry out their work.

‘I work in fear’

Around 7 a.m. on Sept. 14, 2022, Maria Fernanda Passos received a direct message on her Instagram account that would change the course of her day. It contained death and rape threats against the journalist, who worked at the Diário do Centro do Mundo (DCM), from a profile named "Júlio Bordieri," claiming to be a resident of Porto, Portugal, according to information from the now-deleted account.

In the message, a man’s voice hurled insults at Maria Fernanda, questioning her cognitive abilities and threatening to violate her. The aggressor also used threats against her family, saying, "I will rape you, kill you, and kill your family." This attack, motivated by an opinion piece about the presidential elections, significantly impacted her personal and professional life. She can still feel its effects daily.

"It was very harsh violence. I tried to look at it another way, not do what the aggressor wanted — for me to retreat and be silent. On the contrary, I continued [to work] with more strength. But I am afraid. I work in fear," she said. The aggressive message the journalist received during the electoral period was one of many. Passos was insulted numerous times on her social media platforms — with offenses ranging from "shitty journalist" to "go back to the sewage [where she belongs]." The violence almost seemed like "part of the game," a price to pay for her journalistic work and political stance. However, the threats she heard that September morning reached a new level and crossed new boundaries. "After that, I continued to receive attacks. It put me in a kind of panic state. I don't think I self-censored [at work, after the voice message], but every time I posted something, I was afraid of hearing those kinds of things again."

The aggressor was never identified, even though she filed an official complaint and made a police report. Abraji data shows that 97% of the gender-based attacks recorded in 2022 targeted women, cis and trans, and 58.2% originated or had repercussions online. Regarding sexual violence, more than half (57.1%) took place online. All the identified victims of sexual aggression from the past year were women.

‘The public sphere continues to be denied to women who hold their own opinions’

According to Daniela Osvald Ramos, a professor at the Department of Communication at the University of São Paulo (USP), the digital environment has the potential to intensify gender-based violence: "[The attacks] have always existed in some way, but now they find a means of proliferation on a much larger scale, volume, and intensity," she said.

Ramos argues that online intimidation is not just another daily expression of sexism but a systematic way of pushing women and LGBTQ+ journalists away from the public sphere, reducing the diversity of voices on and off the internet. "Usually, the reaction of those who don't experience this reality [of being a target of online gender-based violence] is to suggest a 'simple' solution: leave social media. This context reveals how the public space continues to be denied to women who have public lives and hold their own opinions, reinforcing patriarchy in the 21st century," said Ramos, who is also associated with the Violence Studies Center at USP.

study published by Abraji in December 2022 revealed misogynistic patterns in the treatment of women journalists after the presidential elections. The data showed that the use of terms like "cow," "bitch," and "slut" to insult them on Twitter increased by 300% compared to the 40 days before the start of the election campaign on Aug. 16. According to professor Osvald Ramos, these attacks have become institutionalized. "Unfortunately, over the past four years, Brazilian citizens 'learned' to antagonize and attack journalists in general — and women specifically — following the example of former president Bolsonaro, his followers, and family members," she said.

How can this scenario be reversed? According to her, regulating social media platforms, focusing on media literacy, combating gender-based violence, and severely punishing cases of aggression and threats in the digital environment. To that end, Bill No. 2630/2020, known as the Fake News Bill, is currently being processed in the National Congress and seeks to regulate content posted on social media.

In March 2022, during the launching of Abraji’s first report on gender-based violence against press workers, the minister of the Brazilian Supreme Court, Carmen Lucia, stressed how attacks on women journalists are not mere individual forms of violence: “These attacks are directed against the truth of the facts, the principle of justice, and the practice of democracy.”

‘They want to say we can't be where we are’

The impact of gender-based violence on victims, amplified in scope and intensity through internet tools, is pervasive and profoundly affects their physical and mental health. For Vanessa Lippelt, a journalist specializing in political coverage, the threats she received about a year ago still resonate in her daily life. "I'm still suffering from all this," she pointed out.

In June 2022, when she was an editor for a news outlet focused on politics, Lippelt received death and rape threats via email. The message was triggered by an article about virtual forums mobilizing to produce disinformation in favor of former president Jair Bolsonaro. She was the editor of the piece, not the author. But she became a target anyway. The aggressive text against her was accompanied by a photo of a revolver and her personal information. Her underage daughters were also targeted with threats. "They violate our bodies, our identity. They go after what is most precious to a woman: her children. It's cruel because they know where it hurts. There's a lot of hatred. It's like they want to say that we can't be where we are, that we have to retreat to our insignificance as women."

According to the report "The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence Against Women Journalists," a global study by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and UNESCO published in 2022, offending, assaulting, and threatening the families of women journalist is a common tactic used to intimidate them, disrupt their investigations, and silence their voices. Another characteristic of gender-based violence against female communicators is that it is not isolated but systemic. In addition to the aggression, women journalists must deal with revictimization caused by the irresponsible dissemination of information involving the incidents, lack of support from the companies they work for, negligence from social media platforms, and, consequently, the impunity of their attackers.

Lippelt experienced and relived these different stages of violence after the attack. According to the Brazilian newspaper Metrópoles, in April 2023, the Brazilian justice system imposed a daily fine of R$100,000 on Google for refusing to provide information about the threatening emails. The Civil Police in Brasília identified the suspect as a 23-year-old man, but the tech company declined to disclose his name. "How do we live with this? I still have to deal with the police because I want the person [who made the threats] to be punished. But even after a resolution, the scars will remain. Fear remains. I don't regret the article, and I continue to work, but in a different way. I share all the information I have, but I don't expose myself anymore," she said.

As for the lingering consequences, she said: "You start living with anxiety, fearing some things. I'm terrified of answering the phone. When someone calls me from an unknown number, I don't pick up. I had to set up various filters in my email inbox to stop receiving certain types of messages. I locked and lost my accounts on Instagram and Facebook. What's left? Learning to cope with it."

Online security

To combat online gender-based violence, the project Segur@s en Línea collects and analyzes data on the subject in Central American countries and the Dominican Republic while providing initial legal advice so that victims can seek — and find — justice. Silvia María Calderón López, a public policy analyst at the Pan-American Institute of Law and Technology (IPANDETEC), the organization responsible for the project, emphasized the importance of discussing the issue, especially in Latin American countries. "Legislation in Central America doesn't have a specific classification for digital violence. It's invisible. Therefore, our main goal is to gather data on harassment and digital violence that women and other vulnerable groups may experience."

The group considers any "aggression committed with the partial or total assistance of Information and Communication Technologies" as digital violence. In Brazil, two laws criminalize internet offenses, both were passed in 2012: the Cyber Crimes Law (Law 12,737/2012), known as the Carolina Dieckmann Law, which deals with computer device invasion, and Law 12,735/12, which established specialized departments for digital crimes. The Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Law 12,965/2014), enacted in 2014, regulates online access to and disclosure of personal data. Nonetheless, cases like those of Maria Fernanda Passos and Vanessa Lippelt remain unsolved, even though the violence they experienced is punishable according to Article 147 of the Brazilian Penal Code, which addresses threats and psychological violence against women.

Lawyer Rita Mitre, also a member of IPANDETEC, said that platforms like Twitter are spaces where journalists in Central American countries face attacks. "Journalists often share information of public interest and become victims of online discrediting. This is an attempt to undermine the professional and attack press freedom," she said. According to her, underreporting is one of the main obstacles those fighting against online attacks face. "When we talk about gender-based digital violence, shame and fear come into play."

María Elena García, treasurer of IPANDETEC, adds to the reasoning: "It's important for victims to know they are not alone, that they can report and receive legal help from organizations working on this. It’s also essential to use the internet and social media safely."


Online Safety Tips from the Segur@s en Línea team:

  1. Use different passwords for different accounts. Although it may seem complicated, it’s a good practice to keep your data safe. To help you remember each password, try using a similar structure or format, adding references from the page or service.
  2. Avoid writing down your passwords in notebooks or notepads, and do not share them via text, voice, or email messages.
  3. Do not connect your devices to unknown networks. Connecting to public networks can leave your data vulnerable to theft.
  4. Avoid opening emails and messages from unknown sources. And it never hurts to remember: be cautious with links! Do not click on anything from an unknown or untrusted source.

Political, gender and digital violence in Brazil in 2023

Abraji launched, during the 18th International Congress of Investigative Journalism, the report “Silencing the messenger: the impacts of political violence against journalists in Brazil,” with data on attacks on the press during the first months of 2023. It is available in Portuguese and Spanish.


*Rafaela Sinderski is a data journalist and researcher at the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji).