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Reputational attacks against journalists

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By Mercy Kelani

Majority of the attacks were coordinated smear campaigns from politicians.

A recent survey for a new research project recorded that about 60 percent of surveyed journalists suffer attacks on their personal reputations on a monthly basis. The survey was conducted by the Global Reporting Centre and the Committee to Protect Journalists for investigation of the effects of disinformation and harassment affecting journalists. First details of the study were published to commemorate the World Press Freedom Day before the full details was released earlier this week.

In the report, a reputational attack was defined as public messages are sent with the intention of discrediting, delegitimizing, or dehumanizing journalists. Most times, they take the form of false or inaccurate accusations like Corruption or incompetence. Some of the attacks are one-time Social Media messages, while others are organized smear campaigns. The project’s research was conducted in 2022 and early 2023. 19 percent of the surveyed journalists reported that they encounter attacks on a daily basis.

54 percent of respondents reported false accusations of political bias.

According to reports, 75 percent of the journalists reported attacks on their media outlets’ reputations. The highest attack was on the news media sector as 90 percent of journalists complained about this. About 77 percent of the respondents reported that the most prominent source of these attacks were public officials and politicians. Journalists in countries with limited levels of press freedom had reports of more reputational attacks from politicians and political parties in administration than respondents in countries with high press freedom.

This distinction is significant because politicians and those in power have more accessibility to resources and influence with agencies like Security forces which have the capability to tackle reputational attacks. Regarding personal attacks, false accusations of political bias was the most common form that was reported, with 54 percent respondents. There were also incompetence claims reported by 43 percent respondents, and unethical conducts reported by 42 percent of the journalists. These reports were recorded because in journalism, reputation is vital.

Mental and physical health of journalists are affected.

The reputation on a Journalist determines whether they would be heard or believed, and their chance of economic survival. Changes in the information environment — social media platforms — and political landscapes are responsible for increasing reputational attacks on journalists. In Nigeria, the Press Attack Tracker reported that there has been a record of over 179 cases of attacks on journalists in the last four years. Half of the attacks were accounted for by state actors, while 36.4 percent and 13.6 percent were accounted for by non-state actors and unknown persons, respectively.

Investigations on the contribution of the widespread reputational attacks on risks and challenges encountered by journalists. Journalists who encountered frequent attacks on their reputations were more likely to have been attacked physically or threatened with violence. These attacks have caused harm to the mental and physical health of some of the journalists. Resultantly, many journalists have considered quitting journalism for another profession, and even relocating to another country or city for avoidance or mitigation of threats.

Social media should improve anti-abuse tools.

Recommendations were made in the report to curb the attacks. Some of these recommendations include development of monitoring systems by newsrooms, Civil Society organizations, and press freedom bodies for identification of reputational attacks and harassments targeted at journalists, and development of best practices for the defense of the reputations of journalists — show of public support, legal action — against those responsible for defamation and threats. Social media platforms were also advised to ensure improvement of their anti-abuse tools, moderation of content and capacity for assisting targeted journalists.


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