Mary Mwendwa, a mother of two, is an award-winning investigative journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Mary once published an article in an international media outlet, but which later came back to haunt her, to the extent she couldn’t leave her house, fearing for her and her children’s safety. But what exactly did she write about, enough to make her live in such fear?
With a career spanning over 18 years, Mary’s work has been published in different media outlets -both traditional and new media platforms. While digital platforms have created numerous opportunities for women journalists like Mary, they have also exposed them to online gender-based violence. I had a chat with Mary, where she narrated her experience with digitally-enhanced harassment. This is her story.
“Two years ago, I did a story featuring three male former national boxing stars who, in their active years, had brought fame and glory to Kenya by raising the country’s flag high in the regional and international boxing arenas.
Sadly, the boxers are now struggling to eke a living, many times depending on friends and well-wishers for their basic needs such as food and shelter.
Despite representing Kenya in various championships and winning enviable titles for the country, the boxers now feel neglected by the government, sports bodies, and other stakeholders. Miserable, depressed and battling mental health issues, the article featured the boxers’ alcohol and substance abuse which they turned to in a bid to numb the ‘pain of betrayal’.
The article highlighted the need for Kenya’s support structures to cater for such national heroes after their days of glory. By featuring the experiences of the three former boxers, the article stressed the need for better strategies to care for retired or incapacitated national sports heroes.
The article was published in a major international news media outlet and was read by thousands of people across the world.
Receiving abusive messages
Soon after the article was published, I suddenly noticed a barrage of notifications on my Instagram page, which was very unusual. When I checked, my inbox was filled with tens of messages. I was confused. I had never witnessed such activity on any of my social media pages before. I was soon to realize why.
When I started reading the messages, I realized that they were all referencing the article. They were accusing me of being a traitor. Many of the comments insinuated that I had committed an unforgivable atrocity by publishing a story that shamed Kenya. They accused me of trading Kenya’s distinguished name for a few dollars by selling the article to a foreign media outlet with a huge global audience. They said I was unpatriotic, that I had embarrassed the country. Some insulted me while others tried to intimidate me by saying that a woman journalist had no business writing about complex issues such as sports.
After glancing at their names and profiles, I noted that they were mostly male. They were Kenyans in the country as well as those in the diaspora. Some were from pseudo accounts while others were from people with genuine profiles.
I stopped reading the messages when I got to 100. I had to stop after I realized that with each comment, I would become very distressed. I began feeling scared because some of the comments were very hateful and abusive.
I couldn’t understand where the bitterness was coming from, because I had taken weeks to adequately research on the story, spending enough time with the interviewees, visiting their homes, interacting them, interviewing coaches as well as representatives of the Kenya Boxing Federation. My story was well covered and did not have gaps.
From that story, a family in the United States got in touch with me and requested to support the facilities where the boxers trained through upgrading of the facilities. It is a story that came with lots of positives, but all this was watered down by the negative comments I was receiving.
I started finding it hard to concentrate on my next story as my mind went back to the vicious comments. I started lagging behind in my work.
Threats of a personal attack
While still trying to digest what was happening, I one day received the shock of my life when one of the boxers called me. He said:
“Your story has made me look bad. You have tarnished my name and image. Everything you reported about me is a lie. I’ll look for you and hire goons to beat you up. You’ll soon know who I am.”
His threats puzzled me since I had personally interviewed him and had factually reported his story. I had recorded my interview with him and had obtained his consent to share his story -explaining to him the purpose of the interview and where it would be published –evidence of which I had. I wondered about his attitude and thought that perhaps he had been reprimanded by people who had read the story, and he was now releasing his frustrations on me. His words troubled me.
The man then started texting me several times in a day, threatening to locate me while repeatedly mentioning that his goons would teach me a lesson. I blocked him, but he started calling me with different numbers.
His actions paralyzed me. While I was certain he didn’t know where I lived, I couldn’t be too sure. If he could hire goons as he alluded, couldn’t he also hire people to investigate where I lived? I feared for myself and my children. I became petrified about leaving my house, preferring to work indoors.
I tried to ignore the man but whenever my phone rang, I would start shaking, get sweaty palms, with my heart beating very fast. Had his goons located me?
This situation was unfortunate because as a journalist, I use my phone to undertake extensive research, call sources for my stories, and receive calls. But now, every phone activity would ignite a panic attack. Anytime my phone dinged with a message, I would jump up with fright, fearing the worst. I resorted to changing the sound settings of my phone to ‘silent’ so that I wouldn’t hear it make any sound. My phone is my office and because of his threats, I couldn’t effectively use my office anymore.
This went on for about a month and in that time, I missed many work opportunities. As a freelance journalist, this was a difficult situation as it affected my income.
Eventually, after a month, his calls, messages, and threats stopped suddenly. It took me months to regain my confidence again as his actions, together with the threatening and abusive messages on my Instagram account had taken a toll on me.
I began talking to experts on digital security, who enlightened me on how I can better protect myself online as a woman journalist. I realized that I had not put security features on my Instagram account, and that’s why anybody was able to send me direct messages. While I put restrictions on direct messaging on Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) accounts, I had not done so on Instagram, and this is how the abusers had reached me, taking advantage of this gap to send me offensive messages.
I have since learnt that one should never take any threats lightly, including those meted online. Such threats can damage one’s emotional and mental health, disabling their normal functions. Online abusers can literally numb your life. I have also realized that while one may take threats lightly simply because they are online, these threats can be actualized physically.
I would advise anyone who receives online threats to gather all the evidence and report the offender/s to the police. Nowadays, the police are sensitized enough to deal with online violence reports. Abusive comments on your posts, messages to your inbox, text messages or phone calls that are threatening or offensive in nature are enough for someone to be charged and prosecuted.
At a professional level, I have since participated in training activities by organizations that promote the digital safety of women, including female journalists. I have enhanced my knowledge about how to stay safe online through use of different digital security tools, and I’m in turn intentionally transferring this knowledge to other women journalists.”
This article was first published in Talk Africa here, with the support of KICTANET. KICTANET is an organization that contributes to the promotion of digital rights in Kenya through policy advocacy, awareness campaigns, capacity building, and public participation in the policy-making process.
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