Kim Wall was fearless. The 30-year-old freelancer reported from some of the world’s toughest places — from Haiti to Uganda to North Korea — and focused her keen eye on identity, gender and social justice.
She even once, literally, interviewed a vampire – or rather, an Atlanta-based antique dealer who drinks the blood of volunteers.
But the Swedish national was killed in 2017 on what seemed like a comparatively harmless assignment: interviewing the inventor of a homemade submarine, just miles from her childhood home.
In recent years, voices like hers — big, bold and female — are coming under threat in media around the world. Online harassment of women is on the rise, experts say. And contracting newsrooms mean there are fewer opportunities for women in an already competitive field where — as both journalists and story subjects — they are in the minority.
It’s a very real problem — and one that the coronavirus pandemic appears to be accelerating — says Nadine Hoffman, deputy director at the International Women's Media Foundation.
One way the foundation is fighting that is by turning up the volume on bold women journalists through financial relief and grants, including a grant in Wall's name.
"The journalists that we support cover all kinds of stories," Hoffman said. "We're an organization that supports the diversity of voices. We're not here to fund reporting that is specifically about women's issues or about gender specifically. Often, however, the reporting that we support does include prominently featuring women's stories, experiences, voices."
"I think that every story that we help to tell is in some way a women's story, because women make up half the population," Hoffman added.
Among the latest grant recipients is Zimbabwe-born video journalist Bongani Siziba, who spoke with VOA from her base in Johannesburg.
"For me, I'm more interested in stories that hardly make it to the media mainstream, especially stories of the girl child, human interest stories," said Siziba, who said she funded her journalism studies by selling sweets on the streets of Johannesburg. “And recently I grew to like cultural stories."
That’s the focus of her grant project: a deeper look at South African artist Esther Mahlangu, whose large-scale Ndebele cultural paintings have wowed the international art scene.
These are stories that need to be told, Siziba says. Because women like Mahlangu are multifaceted: in fact, the 85-year-old artist’s massive, colorful geometric artworks are just part of her life’s work. She also runs a school for young female artists at her home in rural South Africa — and teaches them how to navigate life in a society with high rates of violence against women.
This story matters, Siziba says. But in these tough times, she can't sell it.
"Two weeks after the lockdown started, I received a letter from one of the news agencies I was freelancing for. My contract was terminated," she said. A few weeks later, she lost another contract and was left without any source of income.
"I had to rely on just going out there doing a story and not knowing who I’ll sell the story to. So it has been very hard and we're still going, I don't know how. But COVID-19 has totally changed everything, especially in the media space. For us women, it has been tough," Siziba said.
Siziba was one of three women awarded the Kim Wall Memorial Fund grants in 2021. Italian reporter Stefania D'Ignoti who covers migration, and Bhavya Dore, from Mumbai, also received funding for their work.
The pandemic-related economic duress is recent, but the barriers women face in journalism are age-old. Consider, say Hoffman and her colleague, Charlotte Fox, the media's reaction to Wall's death. Her killer is serving a life sentence for murder, sexual assault and desecration of a body.
"I mean, she got on a submarine to have an interview with a submarine builder and people acted like she had done something completely inappropriate, as a solo female reporter going to meet her source," Fox said.
She cited a podcast in which the hosts expressed disbelief that Wall would take the assignment. “They were actually laughing that a woman would get on a submarine to interview this guy — and she shouldn't have done that and all of this would be prevented,” Hoffman added.
This victim-blaming narrative, Fox said, can be explained in one word: misogyny.
While the foundation has documented a number of setbacks to women journalists around the world, another trend is particularly worrying. Online vitriol appears to be rising, especially as more people move their lives online under pandemic restrictions.
"We have seen an uptick in misogyny and anti-women rhetoric in online spaces as our lives have basically migrated entirely to those online spaces,” Hoffman told VOA. “And especially in the U.S. for example, around last year's election, I think that the rhetoric about, you know, women journalists — in particular the rhetoric that came from then-President Trump towards women who were, for example, covering his administration — was completely reprehensible."
Trump has a tense relationship with media asking tough questions. In his last year in office, he told a PBS Newshour reporter "Be nice. Don't be threatening" when she asked a probing question, and told a CBS News reporter she had a "nasty tone."
Such anti-press rhetoric from world leaders is amplified online. A recent report into the intense trolling of Maria Ressa in the Philippines found online attacks spiked and echoed President Rodrigo Duterte's comments on the award-winning journalist and her outlet, Rappler.
Groups like the IWMF are trying to reverse that trend through supporting female journalists.
“We are hopeful that we are now entering a new area where there will be respect, and that this online violence, we can stand up and say, ‘This is not acceptable and this has to stop,’ ” said Hoffman.
This report has been updated to include details of the outcome of the trial into Kim Wall's murder.