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Visibility for Protection

Visibility for protection

The Visibility for Protection framework is a resource to gather and share learning among HRDs, organizations and movements on the strategic deployment of visibility as a means to strengthening their protection.


In practice, visibility efforts (public denunciation, statements, employment of media and social media networks, campaigning, strategic communications, etc.) are being used as core tactics by virtually all human rights defenders (HRDs) and organisations to engage other actors in their work. Most HRDs identify visibility as fundamental to strengthening their movements and impact, since the recognition and support to their struggles is paramount to gain access to resources, influence decision makers, change societal beliefs and mobilise the population. Opportunities and impact greatly depend on their ability to make their demands and struggles visible.

adjective: visible

1. able to be seen.

Being or becoming visible can be challenging and competitive on the current global information age, but doesn't solely depend on sound external communications or marketing strategies. Recognition and trust is fundamental for human rights defenders and organisations to be regarded as indispensable political actors, even more so in an increasingly polarised world. For this reason, often their reputation, credibility, and even their identity, what human rights defenders and organisation are, and represent, is targetted and attacked, with huge potential and effectiveness in deactivating them as legitimate actors in the issues that directly affect them.

“Recognition and trust is fundamental for human rights defenders and organisations to be regarded as indispensable political actors, even more so in an increasingly polarised world. For this reason, often their reputation, credibility, and even their identity, what human rights defenders and organisation are, and represent, is targetted and attacked.”

Defamation, smear campaigns, stigmatisation, delegitimization of movements or leaderships, hate speech, online violence and other attacks over the identity, public image, credibility and reputation of HRDs have become widespread strategies. At the same time, these attacks being underestimated and neglected has resulted in lack of analysis and resources in contrast to other (ironically) more visible threats against HRDs such as killings, physical attacks, arrest and criminalisation.

On the other hand, the human rights field is exploring new ways to proactively 'change narratives'1 and deploy storytelling tactics to change and reconstruct damaging perceptions over human rights and HRDs, and push back against ‘closing’ space for civil society.

For all this, visibility of human rights movements goes beyond external communications, becoming a key element to increase the protection of human rights defenders and organisations. “Visibility” directly relates to both protecting and promoting the identity, public image, reputation and credibility of human rights defenders and organisations and strengthening the ownership, control and deployment of their own narratives. Addressing and counteracting attacks, and proactively using visibility at the service of their goals and protection, have a direct impact on the sustainability and resilience of human rights movements and their ability to conduct their work.

Over the last 8 years, Front Line Defenders has developed its work with human rights defenders to strategically use visibility with the objective of improving their security and protection. Through ongoing partnership and consultations with human rights defenders and organisations around the world, Front Line Defenders has developed the Visibility for Protection framework: a resource to gather and share learning among HRDs, organizations and movements on the strategic deployment of visibility as a means to strengthening their protection, as well as recognising and addressing underlying challenges and dilemmas.


The VfP framework starts by defining the multiple dimensions of visibility for human rihgts defenders (HRDs) (I) - and how it is deployed both with and without their control – having a direct impact on HRDs’ protection and their ability to conduct their work. Secondly, we offer an analysis of visibility-related threats and their impacts (II). Despite the severity of the impacts of visibility-related threats, these have often been underestimated and neglected, resulting in a lack of analysis and resources in contrast to other more visible threats against HRDs such as killings, physical attacks, arrest and criminalisation. The framework goes on to present a series strategies (III) to be chosen, utilised and adapted to both respond to threats and proactively shift the adverse conditions and environment in which HRDs are operating. These set of strategies draw on learning from different fields such as protection against online violence1, Holistic Feminist Protection, Visibility for Protection, Front Line Defenders's casework, internet freedom and digital rights movement and others to reframe HRD visibility with a protection logic. Finally, the frameworks presents a series Recommendations (V) to key actors in strengthening the visibility for protection of human rights defenders and organisations.



1“The Power of Public Narratives”, Just Associates (JASS) and the Global Fund for Human Rights, 2018, available at


 1 Defining “Visibility”: Strenthening and protecting the identity and public image of HRDs

Understanding what visibility is for HRDs, their communities and movements is the starting point for making visibility a tool for protection. The multiple dimensions of visibility, and how it is deployed both within and without their control, has impacts for the protection of HRDs as well as their ability to conduct their work.

dimensions_of_visivility.jpgThe most distinct aspects of “visibility” directly relate to the public image, reputation and credibility of human rights defenders and organisations. In this sense, we are looking at their notoriety and interplay in the public or political space. However, for public-facing human rights defenders such as political leaders, organisers, feminists, LGBTI defenders, etc. often what comes visible and public has to do with their private lives and personal attributes. What human rights defenders and organisation are, and represent, is targetted and attacked, The private spheres and individual attributes, their identities, even the closest aspects of their intimate lives, are deployed against them. Instead of challenging or criticising the work or positioning of human rights defenders, as part of a healthy and legitimate democratic debate, their identity, and sole existence as political players, is disputed and suppressed.

This is particularly true for women, trans and gendered non-conforming human rights defenders (WHRDs). Historically relegated to remain in the private spheres of life (home, family and kitchen), the current rise and conquest of public and political participation by WHRDs and feminist movements in online and offline spaces has confronted a huge backlash. And again, WHRDs are often not challenged around the standards of their work or their ideology, but attacked for who they are, particularly in their personal and private lives. Their loving partners, children, sexuality, lifestyle and other private aspects that have little to do with their political work, are brought to the public, without their consent or control, as a powerful means to damage their reputation and punish their participation, relying onto withstanding historical structures of gendered discrimination.

“Gender stereotypes are used to diminish WHRDs and female journalist. Their family, sexuality, body, personality… are constantly judged. When we respond to patriarchal beauty standards we are sexualised, and if we don't we are tagged as “lesbians”. You can't win, really!”

WHRD, Balkans

The visibility and reputation of HRDs is targetted because it directly affects, and can complete restrain, their participation and leadership, understood in terms of their ability to be regarded as key actors in the issues they work on. Visibility and reputation shapes HRDs' access to decision making and spheres of influence as well as financial and other key resources. A comprehensive understanding of visibility will allow us to identify multiple strategies to turn visibility into genuine protection (as well as understanding and addressing underlying challenges and limitations).

1.1 Protecting the identities and intimacy of HRDs

The personal is political”, Carol Hanisch

Having a critical approach to the content of the work, standards and political approaches of human rights defenders and organisations is part of a healthy and legitimate democratic debate. However, frequently it is the identities of HRD/Os that are used to attack them, or their sole existence and participation in the public space which is challenged and suppressed. Attributes such as their gender, race, origin, age, marital status and family role are utilised to underestimate, isolate, diminish or directly attack their human rights work, utilising stereotypes, discriminatory practices and hate speech.

In many instances, the aspects of their identity that are attacked relate to the closest aspects of their intimate lives, such as their lifestyle, loving partners, children and sexuality, targetting their support networks with huge demoralising and demobilising effects.

In 2021, journalist from El Salvador was researching and denouncing police abuses against the LGBTIQ+ community; to counter her efforts, a violent and explicit online smear campaign was launched against her.The defamatory messages and threats focused on her sexual orientation and sex life, with the aim of discrediting her personally instead of challenging the quality and standards of her work. . The smear campaign reached family members living abroad, and her child was approached by other students who echoed the misogynist and homophobic insults that were spread online.

In the case of women human rights defenders (WHRDs), as recognised by the Iniciativa Mesoamerica de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos (IM-D), “violence is closely linked to and affected by gender discrimination”1. IM-D has demonstrated2 that, in the Mesoamerican region, the attacks that women defenders most commonly face target their gender and political identities, including slander, accusations and smear campaigns based on gender stereotypes (for example, questioning a WHRD's abilities or leadership or referring to her alleged sexual behaviour or neglect of family obligations) and intimidation and psychological harassment that use sexist and sexual insults.

“Our love life, our bodies, our appearance, the way we talk and our families and children are used to attack us. Men are never attacked in this way. Stereotypes are exploited to diminish women and exclude them from the public debate”

WHRD, Uzbekistan

When WHRDs suffer defamation, attacks or feminicides, the general public and media often put their personal lives, sexuality and compliance with gendered roles under scrutiny, strengthening narratives that blame victims and justify violence against women (VAW).

“In Chile, the feminicides of Macarena Valdés, Fernanda Masiel, and trans woman Berta resulted in huge media attention. But the narratives were not focusing on denouncing VAW or demanding justice over the crimes, but rather on the personal lives and sexuality of the killed women, contributing to justify the crimes over an “original sin” and an imaginary that blames the victims”

WHRD, Chile

Race, class, origin, age, marital status, family role and other historical forms of discrimination are exploited to harm the public image and recognition and attempt to silence WHRDs.

“Users frequently write racist comments and insults on my videos on anti-racism. “You are disgusting you black shit. You are not from Spain, you are a fucking African whore. You don't belong here”.

WHRD, Spain

In certain contexts, the very act of being visible, openly living one’s (sexual, gender, ethnic, etc) identity is an act of defiance and rebellion, an act that defends the rights of others to live their own identities by normalising and opening a public and safe space for all.

“When you are an activist you are carrying the burden of so many people, all the people that are in the closet. That's why we empower them to become activists. In Kenya there are so many problems: corruption, culture, thieves… but still, all that hatred if focused against LGBTIQ+ people. But all the shit I have gone through has made me strong. I always walk as a proud lesbian who walks with a beautiful woman. I set an example for other lesbians.”

LGBTIQ+ rights defender, Kenya

Attacks over identities and personal attributes of HRDs require proactive visibility strategies and reconstruction of narratives to neutralise delegitimisation and exclusion. In addition, to continue participating in the public and political spheres requires HRD/Os to incorporate security and protection planing at the core of their visibility strategies.




1.2 Expectations and myths around the concept of “human rights defender”

vfp mexico exercise expectationsIn addition to the many pressures over dissenting and non-conforming identities, HRDs bear the burden of the myths and expectations that follow from their work defending the rights of others. When asked about the image that others have of them1, HRDs frequently use concepts such as “strong, heroic, brave, daring, empathetic, reachable, problem-solver and dedicated”. Once again, the image of HRDs is affected by historical preconceptions related to gender, race, culture, age and others: “generous, carer, loving, active listener, selfless, positive,” etc.. The burden of this imaginary is frequently the source of guilt and burnout, and at the core of growing demands to affording self- and collective-care necessary consideration and resources to ensure the sustainability and strength of social movements and HRD/Os.

In addition, the concept of “human rights defender” has been glorified in recent years by public depictions that focus on exalting certain individuals (that are seen as particularly charismatic, “leaders” or “heroic”) and even their resilience when experiencing risks and violence. An individual approach2 to HRD protection can solve problems of imminent risk, but, in addition to potentially increasing the burden of unrealistic expectations on the HRDs, does not change the conditions and environment in which HRDs are operating. This approach may also raise other problems: focusing attention on an individual HRD may result in increased targeting of that person; it may generate resentment amongst communities and organisations; and it can give the impression that HRDs are “superheroes”, alienating them from their communities, concealing their vulnerabilities and detaching them from the idea that anyone can be a human rights defender. At times, HRDs have been acclaimed for the dangers they are ready to endure for their causes, resulting in detrimental dynamics in which risks and violence can bring visibility and access to resources. Finally, an individual approach does not provide a faithful account of the struggles and realities of HRDs, since all successes are the result of collective efforts and not of the work of individual or isolated HRDs. With increased awareness of the potentially deleterious impacts of individual response to risk and threat, a growing number of HRD/Os are demanding collective forms of representation and protection and a move away from individualistic visibility and protection strategies. Individual measures are indeed required in circumstances of imminent and severe risk, but these limitations should be taken into account, allowing for collective planing with the HRDs' support network towards sustainable protection measures, which need to rely on and strengthen collective power and resilience. In terms of communications strategies, media and human rights organisation should still be able to employ factual and inspiring story-telling around HRDs while reducing these negative effects through a more horizontal and collaborative process together with the HRDs protection network.

Image on the right: During a group exercise at a workshop on protection, Mexican HRDs list the many adjectives and expections that accompany thier identity as HRDs.

1Group exercise with Mexican HRDs on well-being and burn-out, Mexico City, November 2018.

2“The limits of Individual Approaches to Protection”, pag. 15, and “The contradictions of Visibility as a Strategy”, pag. 16, “Rethinking Protection, Power, and Movements”, Marusia Lopez with Alexa Bradley, Justice Associates, 2017:

1.3 Stigmatisation and criminalisation of human rights defenders

In contrast to the high expectations that accompany HRDs within their communities, the very concept of “human rights defender” has been stigmatised and demonised by state authorities, media and corporate public rhetoric, which spread narratives and labels that “portray activists as anti-national, anti-development, undermining societal norms, elitist, unaccountable and corrupt, and even as terrorists.”1 Through this strategy, dominant narratives are modelled to shape the political agenda and exclude certain issues and actors by attacking their legitimacy:

“How issues are framed and communicated illustrates the way power operates, sometimes overtly and often behind the scenes, to exclude issues. For example, feminism is deemed elitist or a Western import that destroys families. Framing the situation in this manner deflects attention from the economic realities that break families apart... Many political leaders frame policy decisions as security interests, manipulating fear and anxiety to justify war and reduce civil liberties while obscuring the economic interests.”

Just Associates, ‘Making Change Happen 3: Power’, 2006.

For WHRDs, any form of public participation is met with labels and stigmas that aim to discredit their voices and exclude them from political participation.

“The terms “feminazi” and “gender ideology” have become widespread to discredit any public interaction or debate led by women on their own rights”

WHRD, Spain

“I'm a cook. I started my work engaging with women in the favelas over domestic violence through cooking workshops. If I had branded the activity with words like “feminism” or “women's rights”, it wouldn't have been accepted, but having a women-only space in the kitchen was natural and acceptable for everyone, allowing for a safe space for our discussions”

WHRD, Brazil

Power dynamics that exclude or conceal issues and certain actors from participating in the political debate need to be confronted with strategies that overtly recognise the legitimacy of HRDs in the construction and defense of democratic and human rights values.

1“The Power of Public Narratives”, Just Associates and the Global Fund for Human Rights, 2018, available at

1.4 Control and agency over own narratives and public image

The credibility and legitimacy of HRDs are attacked to intentionally limit their participation, leadership and access to resources and decision-making. Additionally, as a result of multiple preconceptions over various identities and the imaginary over HRDs, defenders frequently lack control and agency over their public image.

Furthermore, human rights organisation, donors, international institutions, media and other partners of HRDs have, inadvertently or unsolicitedly, contributed (even if well-intended) to the construction of damaging narratives over HRDs. At times, the publication of information on HRDs without the appropriate risk analysis and protection planning, to be done in direct collaboration with the HRDs and their support network, can increase exposure and risk.

A grassroots WHRD from the Americas was selected for a major international human rights award. The press release announcing the prize was prepared without her involvement, including details on the location and context in which she works (it being a high risk environment controlled by organised crime) and the amount of the large monetary prize.

In order to turn HRD narratives into protection tools, it remains crucial to emphasise the importance of the centrality and agency of HRDs in any alliance, protection process and visibility initiative that is undertaken on their behalf; to respect and enhance HRDs’ ownership over their identities and the narratives about them and their struggles; to deconstruct gendered, colonial and other discriminatory dynamics of power that prevent HRDs and their protection networks from being consulted; to create opportunities for HRDs to boldly lead efforts to promote their public image and visibility as a tool to increase their protection.

consent, just ask

Strengthening the control and agency of HRDs and social movements over their public image will allow them to proactively use it for their own purposes, anticipate and help address risks and enhance their protection.

2 Threats and impacts

Threats and attacks against HRDs that have to do with the multilayered aspects of visibility include defamation, smear campaigns, stigmatisation, delegitimization of movements or leaderships, hate speech, online violence (such as harassment, public threats, insults and hate speech, disseminating false information, identity theft, denial or restrictions to channels of communication such a social media profiles, etc)1 and other attacks over the identity, public image, credibility and reputation of HRDs.

BOX: Types of threats and attacks to the public image of HRDs

- defamation

- smear campaigns

- stigmatisation

- delegitimization of movements or leaderships

- hate speech

- online violence

- criminalisation

- ridicule, infantilization and denial of the validity of defenders, their causes and proposals.

Attacks can come from a myriad of actors, including public authorities, criminal groups, corporations, media, general public, haters/trolls, organised religious or ideological fundamentalist or far-right groups, and actors from their closest surroundings, including relatives and members of the very same social movements.

Public authorities often instrumentalise their legitimacy and symbols to increase the impact of defamation. The presence or deployment of police or security forces can be a defamatory tool in itself, when the very act of arriving at the home or neighbourhood of a W/HRD or organisation will intentionally impact their and their families' environment. Media is often complicit when reporting such incidents.

Criminalisation or the filing of charges by the authorities is also defamatory in cases of fabricated charges. The intentional effect – aside from tying up the defender in a resource-intensive and exhaustive legal processes that can wear down their capacities – is to isolate HRDs and de-legitimise their human rights work.

Another typical strategy deployed by authorities and corporations is to denounce HRDs for defamation when they report on human rights violations or abuses (including filing formal complaints via legitimate and established procedures, such as international human rights mechanisms or international finance institutions), again damaging the credibility of HRDs and forcing them to divert limited resources from their human rights work, as well as spreading a chilling effect against other HRDs.

“Three WHRDs were denounced by the mayor for slander. The police arrived in their homes, their children opened the doors, all the neighbourhood saw it. This is also a form of defamation. Public institutions use their legitimacy to construct the “truth” and stigmatise certain profiles.”

WHRD, Chile

“The most worrisome of all is that, although the criminal cases have finally been filed, the massive police deployment and the media's role in alarming the population has resulted in the de facto criminalization of left-wing movements”

WHRD, Spain

HRDs have documented and reported that manipulation and delegitimisation by public authorities is systemic and orchestrated, and has a chilling effect extending to other human rights organisations movements. The intention is to demobilise support networks – this can happen when human rights defenders, organisations and even funders and protection mechanisms are deterred from assisting the targeted HRD at the risk of also being affected and targetted.

“In Guatemala, the narratives on terrorism and drug trafficking have been actively constructed during years, and then used against HRDs and social protest.”

WHRD, Guatemala

Some of the impacts1 on HRDs of attacks against their public image, reputation and legitimacy include:

Psychosocial and physical impacts

Stress, fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, burnout or addictions, which can also manifest as physical illnesses.

Economic and labour impacts

Dismissal, loss of business or clients, harassment and mistreatment at work, burdening legal defence costs, loss of access to donors and economic resources, etc.


Isolation, stigmatisation, public scorn and bullying.

Rejection at community and family levels

Including breaking-up of families and relationships and resulting on pressure on HRDs to abandon their activities.


Denial of access to decision-making and spheres of influence.


Self-censorship, abandonment of human rights activities, removal or exclusion from the organisation, removal from online spaces or spaces of public participation (which are already underpopulated by WHRDs and other collectives facing structural discrimination).

Public overexposure

Resulting in loss of privacy and intimacy, public scrutiny and, possibly, exposure in front of aggressors which can increase attacks.

Smear campaigns and hate speech, particularly against WHRDs, online and offline, often reach, or directly target, their children and relatives, multiplying the psychosocial impact on them. Family members (husbands, children, parents, uncles) are directly targeted as a way to intimidate, silence and stop WHRDs.

“Defamation is very effective. Its phycological impact also demobilises us. Its happening on a day to day basis, and targets our families, social networks, friends. This results in us trying to protect our families, pretending we are are ok when we are not, and end up carrying the burden by ourselves.”

WHRD, Egypt

“Defamation in the media and violent rhetoric from high-level government officials is a key cause of decreased activism amongst SOGIE rights defenders, who report feeling caught between a desire to continue their work and complaints from family and friends about endangering them.”

Indonesia report, Front Line Defenders, December 2017

HRDs’ testimonies show that defamation and other attacks on their public image can lead to, and have at times been deliberately used to provoke, embolden or legitimise an escalation of attacks and violence, such as threats, intimidation, physical attacks and criminalisation.

On 28 December 2017, Maldivian human rights defender Shahindha Ismail was targeted by an online news article published by Vagathu Online that labeled her as an apostate. The defender has since become the target of a police investigation, and has been subjected to death threats and online intimidation.

Shahindha Ismail targeted by news article, death threats & police investigation, Front Line Defenders Urgent Appeal, January 2019

“Defamation is being used as a first step to justify the criminalisation process and prepares for the instrumentalisation of the judicial system. It also legitimates other violations, such as loss of privacy, threats… This process is conveniently placed into anti-development, terrorism and drug trafficking narratives.”

Collective analysis at WHRD convening on defamation, organised by Front Line Defenders, July 2019

Although defamation and other attacks against the public image of HRD may legitimise or embolden further attacks, the significant impacts and demobilising effect require that they are duly addressed and recognised in their own right. Despite their severity, these impacts have often been underestimated and neglected, resulting in a lack of analysis and resources in contrast to other more (ironically) visible threats against HRDs such as killings, physical attacks, arrest and criminalisation. For example, in the case of online violence against WHRDs, the fact that it happens in the “virtual” or online world has resulted in it being considered less serious that other forms of gendered-based violence, and receiving less attention, research, resources and political and policy responses.1 Research has demonstrated that online violence disproportionally affects women and WHRDs, compared to their male counterparts2, which may have contributed to the lesser resources and policy response it has received.

1Based on collective analysis by group of WHRDs from the Americas, Front Line Defenders consultation, July 2019.

1¡Es virtual y es real! Es violencia.

2Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective A/HRC/38/47 parr. 28



3 Strategies

Front Line Defenders has worked together with W/HRDs around the world to outline and deepen on strategies against defamation and other attacks over the public image of HRDs. Within the overall framework of risk analysis and protection planning, strategies are to be chosen, utilised and adapted to both respond to threats and proactively shift the adverse conditions and environment in which HRDs are operating.

These set of strategies draw on learning from different fields such as protection against online violence, Holistic Feminist Protection, Visibility for Protection, Front Line Defenders's casework, internet freedom and digital rights movement and others to reframe HRD visibility with a protection logic.


3.1 Strategies against damaging narratives: defamation, hate speech, stigmatisation and criminalisation

As we have already seen, defamation, smear campaigns, stigmatisation, delegitimization of movements or leaderships, hate speech and other attacks over the credibility, legitimacy and reputation of HRD/Os are extremely common and effective tactics to curtail their public and political participation. Trustbeing fundamental for human rights defenders and organisations – in their relationships with their communities, stakeholders, authorities, donors and human rights institutions –, it is often targetted and attacked.

In addition, frequently actors that are interested in discrediting and wiping out the voices of HRD/Os have powerful influences and tools to spread their defamatory narratives. Governments, politicians and corporations may have access and alliances with mainstream media or use public institutions to expanse their messages at a national and even international level. Besides, social media has provided a direct loudspeaker for trolls and bots to spread hate speech and attacks against HRD/Os.

Confronting this powerful actors and narratives often makes HRD/Os feel disempowered and defenceless against harmful narratives used against them and without their control. But, even if the influence of HRD/Os on public opinion cannot be compared to governments and large corporations, from a protection perspective there is a number of things that can be done. In this sense, ACTOR MAPPING and THREAT ANALYSIS can provide some additional information for HRD/Os to choose strategies to protect themselves against this harmful narratives. This exercise can be done by responding to a series of questions that split the elements and functioning of the damaging message or narrative:

BOX: Visibility for Protection threat analysis1

1) What are the sources? (Who is spreading the message)

2) What is the medium? (How is the message being spread)

3) What is the message? (What is being said)

4) Who is the target audience for the message (who is going to receive the message) and what is the objective of the message (what are they expected to do after receiving the message)?

5) Can we identify if there is a pattern or trend and what might happen next?

Threat analysis over a defamatory or stigmatising narrative serves to separate the different elements of the message, in order to find more ways to influence or curtail it, specially where we find a particular risk or impact we would want to counter. For example, when we ask ourselves what is the target audience of the defamatory message, the groups who will receive the message may include our family, community, human rights allies, donors… We may not be able to influence a national wide audience, but for those group who particularly impact our work and our protection, we will find we have a direct link and relationship, and choose to address them directly to counter the message.

“We have not been able to raise awareness in the whole country about the importance of our environmental work. Sadly, a lot of what we do is misunderstood and disliked by most of the population. However, when a defamatory article or smear campaign comes up against us. we reach out to our donors and key allies. They understand our context and these dynamics and remain supportive and backing us up in these situations”.

Environmental rights defender, Macedonia

“In my work as a feminist journalist, I am often harassed and defamed. The insults and backlash sometimes target my daughter, at school for example. I have worked with her to help her understand why this happens, and to respond and protect herself in those situations”.

WHRD, Spain

Identifying the medium and the source can also bring light into new possibilities to affect the narrative, by targetted actions addressing the individual people that are behind, or orchestrating, the building of it: journalists, employers from companies, politicians, etc.

“There was an online media that was continuously publishing defamatory articles against a WHRD in our network. We started asking ourselves questions about how and who was building that narrative. It turns out it was always the same journalist who was behind the smear campaign. We wrote him a letter, co-signed by a large number of human rights organisations in the country, asking to refrain from his unlawful claims. He never wrote anything about the WHRD again”.

WHRD, Honduras

In this way, threat analysis methodologies can orientate and help define strategies and address that “civil society groups need a clearer analysis of the narrative strategies used against their work – particularly what makes it effective – and our own contrasting and compelling narratives.”1 Threat analysis over these types of threats must be part of wider risk analysis and protection planing process for the HRD/s and their organisation. When HRD/Os are working in a context of high risk of defamation, this risk should be address as part of the overall RISK ANALYSIS AND PROTECTION PLANING process. When particular circumstances o projects affect or can trigger the threat, for example with a particular publication or campaign coming out, the plan can be updated or created as part of the overall activity planing. For more information on how to implement risk analysis and protection planing, please consult Front Line Defenders Workbook on Security.

A key learning that we have gathered when working with HRD/Os to confront defamation and hate speech is that, if the targetted W/HRD has decided that they want to respond and “defend their reputation”, it is crucial that they don't confront the damaging narratives in isolation, but that it is other human rights organisations and allies need to ACCOMPANY WITH A COLLECTIVE VOICE, taking a step forward to defend their work and legitimacy. Publicly appearing in solidarity and support of the targetted HRD/O can also have a powerful symbolic impact on their reputation and protection.

At times of frequent smear campaigns, or criminalisation, it remains a significant effort to KEEP KEY ALLIES UP TO DATE AND ENGAGED. However, it may be vital to keep those alliances ready to act and mobilise in case of need or escalation.

“At the time I was confronting the criminal case against me, things were evolving really fast. In addition, we were confronting frequent security incidents of harassment, digital surveillance and intimidation, which had the objective of discouraging me and my support group. With the help of my organisation, we kept international allies, friendly authorities and other key actors up to date on the changing situation and the incidents. It was not easy during such a difficult and busy period, but it meant that all our allies were ready to act if we needed to come out quickly in our defense. Diplomats and international authorities quickly reached out to my Government when was needed, donors were ready to support us when we had unforeseen protection expenditures, and other human rights organisation would quickly mobilise publicly and in solidarity whenever we asked them to.”

WHRD, North Africa

Finally, in cases when public participation entails a high risk of defamation or discrediting, it is important to PLAN COMMUNICATIONS STRATEGICALLY, putting protection at the centre. Strategic messaging and communications planing can enable more impact as well as building and controlling the message, and identifying risks and threats in advance that can be prevented and mitigated through a protection plan. Please see our “strategic planning guiding tool” and “protection when dealing with the media” sections for more information.



1“The Power of Public Narratives”, Justice Associates and the Global Fund for Human Rights, 2018, available at

1Adapted from “Threat Analysis” on Front Line Defenders' Workbook on Security: Practical Steps for Human Rights Defenders at Risk to address threats and attacks to the public image of HRDs.

3.2 Strategies against online violence

Online violence (such as harassment, public threats, insults and hate speech, disseminating false information, identity theft, denial or restrictions to channels of communication such a social media profiles, etc)1 has become a widespread strategy to curtail and punish HRD voices, particularly those of women, trans and gender non-conforming HRDs. A highly gendered threat, WHRDs may experience harassment, impersonation, stalking, defamation, sexual slurs, dissemination of intimate images or information without consent, doxxing, coordinated boot and troll attacks, threats of rape, deep fakes, and surveillance. The impact of these attacks on the lives, security, intimacy and activism of women human rights defenders is immense. Widely perpetrated and unpunished, the fear and harm caused is severely curtailing women's right to online and public political participation.

Tech companies and policies are not taking this violence seriously and are failing to protect WHRDs and their right to participate in these spaces. We will first refer to the public or private formal denunciation procedures that tech companies and public authorities are offering, and their frequent shortcomings.

BLOCKING and REPORTING entails using the formal application's or internet platform's2 procedures to block or report aggressors. CRIMINAL DENUNCIATION entails making use of the national penal procedures to denounce an offence.

In terms of these formal denunciation procedures, it remains important to evaluate their efficiency and to stay aware of the obligations and commitment of the public authorities and internet and social media companies. At times, the support that public institutions and companies may grant is limited, and attempting this remedy can be costly in terms of legal and other expenses, well-being and time and human resources. Although mistrust or weakness of these institutions and widespread levels of impunity means that the denunciation may have no impact on the immediate protection of HRDs, it is worth considering if it may still be useful as it provides a formal record of the incidents, evidence and information on patterns and impacts. As an alternative, the use of social or symbolic tribunals, as well as international human rights bodies that are ready to take progressive positioning on the issues, including public statements, may be useful.

The International Rights of Nature Tribunal was create with the aim of “demonstrating how courts and judges should treat environmental cases through the Rights of Nature”3. Some HRD/Os have opted to create independent or social tribunals to demonstrate a living example of how the institutions should address certain issues and human rights violations.

In addition, underlying debates developed by the internet freedom community need to be taken into account when seeking State or punitive responses since “excessive monitoring and surveillance, whether by the State or by private actors, may have a chilling effect over freedom of expression on the Internet”4. Widespread concerns of the risks of granting or promoting excessive powers to governments over content regulation that can and have resulted at times “as an excuse for introducing new technologies of control or for curtailing existing liberties”5. Attention to these aspects and engagement with allies from the internet freedom and digital rights movements are effective to advise on the defence of HRDs’ online safety and avoid unintended implications of public or policy claims.

PUBLIC DENUNCIATION is another very common strategy that HRD/Os use when confronting online violence messages and campaigns. Urgent appeals, statements, joint letters, and other forms of public denunciation have the overall purpose of giving publicity to and condemning attacks while identifying the aggressors. Again, immediate advocacy or protection impact may be limited, but there are multiple objectives, such as demonstrating SOLIDARITY and accompaniment, mobilising allies and international organisations, and again providing a record of the ongoing situation of risk. When the reputation and legitimacy of a HRD or organisation is under attack, it is important that the responsibility to counter that is not carried by the HRDs but that the community, partner organisations or overall movement takes a stand on their behalf. The specific case may offer additional opportunities: sending letters, printouts at the community level, phone calls, etc. In any case, public denunciation tactics must be adapted to local contexts and targetted to the specific objective/s and audience/s. It is critically important to put W/HRDs and their protection network at the centre of any initiative that involves public action or narrative on their behalf, as well as putting in place well-being and collective care tactics.

It is also important to take into account that a public denunciation may unwittingly provide information to aggressors on the success and impact of their harmful actions, and consider how to avoid contributing, unintentionally, to the spread or “viralisation” of the attack. Additionally, directly responding to or engaging with aggressors, online and offline, may overexpose HRDs and their networks or generate an escalation or backlash of attacks. This is why it may be worth considering strategies that can enhance the solidarity and collective care aspects of support networks, without visibilising or engaging the attack or the attacker.

A WHRD from Kyrgyzstan had been facing an ongoing defamation and hate speech online campaign for days. After discussing with her network, they decided not to respond or engage with the haters and trolls, or to publicly denounce, and thus share, the very violent and explicit messages she has been receiving. As an alternative, they worked on mobilising their contacts to blast her social media profiles with messages of love and support, acting as “love trolls” that would offset and rebuild her online identity.

In cases of public overexposure, continued attacks or prevalent defamation and criminalisation, the importance of involving PROTECTION NETWORKS and creating SUPPORT GROUPS to confront targetted violence remains crucial.

“When we face violence online, having a friend next to us makes a big difference. You want to know why? At a time where everyone seems to judge you and be against you it is important to say: Friend, we are with you. It was not your fault. You are not alone.”

La Clika (México), “How to help a friend under attack?”, providing practical advice on what to do and what not to do for support networks of women facing online violence

However, often the close surroundings of W/HRDs confronting this violence lack the awareness and resources to identify and address their needs.

A WHRD in Panama received a defamatory and explicit meme which used her picture. Aware of the source and objective of it, she decided not to take it seriously and ignore it. However, after a few hours she had received dozens of messages by friends and relatives condemning the attack and asking how she was. Some of her friends and supporters had gone ahead and published the meme on social media, which was widely shared. By the end of the day, the WHRD felt overwhelmed and disheartened by the attention and impact it had had on her network.

Strengthening capacities of support networks by sharing learning6 and providing spaces for awareness raising and preventive strategising on collective care and accompaniment is paramount to sustain and build resilience against prevailing and impactful attacks.

Online violence operates in a way that can be difficult to predict, and thus prevent. In addition, in many contexts, certain voices and public profiles are just routinely confronting attacks just by existing or participating on social media. Women human rights defenders with public profiles and visibility, particularly if trans, queer, racialised or crossed by other intersectional identities, incessantly face harassment, threats, hate speech and defamation online. At the same time, their voices on social media and online spaces have become crucial in the struggle for women's rights to development, livelihoods, health, information, education, networking, and advocacy, and the amplifying of women's voices and viewpoints. To continue serving the collective voice of women, a collective effort to sustain and protect them is essential. One option to ensure that more visible or targetted WHRDs have regular and sensitive support to realise their protection needs is to create a SUPPORT GROUP. The form and format may vary, but a small, efficient and committed group of people, with interdisciplinary capacities and aptitudes, that will be reachable to respond at changing situation and escalation fo threats, can be vital in sustaining the WHRD throughout the backlash and response process.

A young WHRD has gained a lot of followers and visibility in recent months on social media through her short videos on gender based violence. Meanwhile, outbursts of violent messages and threats on her timeline and direct messages have become more and more frequent. The lack on control before or during these situations, and the animosity and hatred in the messages, is severely affecting her mental and emotional wellbeing. To support her during these situations, a small group has come together, including 2 close friends, her lawyer, an activist working on HRD protection, and a digital security expert. Organised on a Signal group, they are continually reachable. They have discussed in advance with the WHRD what her needs are during the crisis situations, and how she wants them to respond. When an incident happens, they meet in person or in a secure online space to discuss and assess the situation, and put in place protection measures. When a particular social or political event is approaching, or the WHRD is going to publish content that may face backlash, they also have a collective discussion on what could happen and how to prevent and be prepared against the attacks.

Finally, a holistic and effective approach to protection requires that other dimensions of the security of the affected HRD/Os are taken into account in the protection planing process. This could include physical security (at home, in the offices, at the legal level, during trips etc), other aspects of digital security (protection against surveillance, protecting online accounts, privacy, etc), protecting other member of the family or organisation, etc.

1For a typology of online violence, see “ Trece formas de agresión relacionada a las tecnologías” (In Spanish), La <Clika>,

2La Clika: What responsibility do Internet platforms have? (In Spanish)




6See for example and

3.3 Protection when dealing with the media

Protection from overexposure collects learning on best practices and tips for HRD protection at times of overexposure (successful actions of visibility or public denunciation, human rights awards, HRDs with very public profiles, etc.). Practical advice and planing allows for control over messaging and narratives that can be used to harm HRDs and turning them into a tool for their overall purpose and protection. This also entails capacity building and guidance on dealing with the media, preparing for interviews and planning around press releases, press conferences and social media with a protection logic.

Some best practices and tips for HRD protection at times of media or public exposure that we have learnt form HRD/Os around the world include:

Controlling the message

  • Prepare the main messages in advance. Collectively agree on 2-3 key points that need to be present in every piece of campaign material, press release, interview, advocacy meeting, etc.
  • The best way to control the message is to be the first to put it out. (See: Press Release & Giving Interviews)
  • Choose your allies carefully; it is important to maximise “visibility” for your message, but not at the expense of the security or socio-emotional health of the HRDs. For example, you may choose to talk only to journalist that you trust, to avoid the risk of the message being manipulated.
  • Against the risk of manipulation or defamation, another attempt for your message to be reproduced integrally is to directly share with media videos or audio recording. Prepared in advance, the risk of being pushed or flustered by journalist is also controlled.

Press Releases

  • Put the main message in the title and again in the first paragraph.
  • In second paragraph include a quote from the defender/collective.
  • Include two more quotes: one from community impacted by your work (general public supporting you) & one from an influential person who is a supporter for your cause (exhibit legitimacy)
  • Put at least one full contact name, email, phone number so journalists can know who to contact. Consider using a new, unique phone number for press work, rather than someone’s personal phone. You can also use a fake name, email, and other disposable forms of contact. While these things can of course be traced, it can still help avoid harassment to personal or family phone lines.
  • Press release should be 1-1.5 pages maximum. For additional background info, long biographies, history, or context, consider “Editors Notes” on another page.
  • Send an advance press release to one or two of your top journalist allies. They can prepare a piece that accurate represents your message (with photos, videos, and quotes you choose). The first article about a topic often dictates the tone, as other journalists or online outlets in particular will often copy-paste.

Dealing with journalists & preparing for interviews

  • Journalists are a very important ally, but think strategically about which journalists are more useful for your cause and do not feel forced to say “yes” to every request for an interview.
  • List which specific outlets, journalists, and mediums will enhance your protection. Prioritize getting info to these media actors in advance of the campaign or project launch.
  • List which media may pose risks for the defenders, collective, or community.Avoid giving interviews to journalists who might manipulate your message. Decide in advance if you will ignore
  • these requests, say no explicitly, or respond in some other way, and who will manage this response. Remember that even if you say no to an interview, the article may print anyway, and may say “did not return request for comment.”
  • Prepare key messages in advance, questions to avoid and answers for difficult questions. If more than one person is doing interviews, how will you maintain a consistent message? Prepare a list of probable questions and answers in advance!
  • Determine who will handle the role of receiving/filtering media requests. Who will they pass this request on to? Will one person do every interview? Will you have prepared quotes to send back?

Security at press conferences & launch events

  • Control over attendees through a registration desk and list.
  • Speakers can include HRDs, representatives from community, influential supporters.
  • You can set up a protection focal group who will be monitoring the entrance, attendees you suspect may have the intention of boycotting or manipulating the event, and restrict entrance if needed.
  • Decide collectively whether there will be a round of questions or not, and what media / journalists will be given or not space to ask. Choose a strong moderator, prepare with them in advance and brief them during the event to let them know if they should not give the floor to certain people you suspect have poor intentions. Ask each journalist to say their name and media before asking questions.
  • Prepare and give the printed press dossier (control over the message).

3.4 Planing strategic communications: counter-narratives, counter-campaigns, changing the narratives

This block moves from reactive responses to harmful narratives towards proactive strategic communications to shifting the narratives at the service of their goals and protection.

Strong, well-framed communications campaigns require defining specific goals (short- or long-term), targets, existing and potential allies, existing and potential opponents, resources and logistics and risk assessment to come up with effective tactics (actions/activities), timeframe and monitoring, learning & evaluation indicators (ML&E).

The table shows the list of basic elements for a visibility or strategic communications plan. Please download the guiding tool for more detail on this strategic planing tool.

Visibility for protection strategic planning

    • Long term/ Main goals
    • Secondary Goals/Specific objectives: stepping stones to achieving your end goal (specific, achievable, timely)
  • Target (decision makers ← public audience)
  • Actors: allies and opponents
  • Logistics and resources
  • Strategy, tactics & timeframe
  • Risk assessment
  • Monitoring and evaluation

At the core of the debate on communicating human rights effectively for social change is the need to present an alternative model, system and power that is aspired to. “Changing the narratives” requires pulling away from conflicting and reactive rhetoric into making room for the alternative reality, which, if not determined by discriminatory, exclusionary and unequal structures, can curtail the respective risks. A Visibility for Protection strategy involves focusing on building an alternative, while putting protection at the centre of the communications strategy, in order to enable HRDs to win support and turning their work, identity, public image and vision into assets that are resilient to attack or challenge.

Building a digital campaign and support base online/social media

As we live in an increasingly digital world in which we rely on social media and the internet for information and entertainment, strategic digital campaigns have become an important tool for HRDs to increase their protection by focusing on visibility through targeted digital campaigns. The same approach used for the framework of planning strategic communications can be applied, utilising the four main social media networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) to regain control of online narratives on social media, especially where defamation and smear campaigns are concerned. By analysing the negative messages and accounts which are posting them, HRDs can plan to counter these narratives.

The use of graphics with planned messaging using infographics, short video and podcasts combined with hashtags, targeted paid campaigns and tagging allows HRDs to begin taking control of narratives online. By reaching out to strategic partners and sharing toolkits, diverse and trusted voices supporting HRDs furthers the control of positive narratives for HRDs, providing them with legitimacy in the face of defamation. Social media narratives also influence how journalists and media houses view HRDs and can be a catalyst for them to pick up stories – thus, the wider a digital campaign spreads on social media, the more positive reactions it may gain for the HRD such as journalists picking up the story and wanting to be part of the online conversation, thus contributing to pro-actively controlling the narrative.

3.5 Regaining control of information about us that is published online

Protecting individual and collective identities requires regaining control and ownership over HRDs' public identities and the narratives about them. This entails an analysis of the information that is publicly available on HRDs and collectives (home and office location, work routines, traveling, information on family and children, pictures, contact details and other information that can be extracted from our online shadow1) and how that has affected their public image, as well as digital and other protection tactics to reinforce privacy and control over the information (strengthening passwords, two-facto authentication, security settings on social media profiles, etc).

This 2 guides developped by the NYT may be a good starting point

A Guide to Doxxing Yourself on the Internet

Social Media Security & Privacy Checklists


3.6 Building alternative forms of representation: collective forms of representation, compartmentalisation of identities (pseudonyms, online identities, etc), anonymity, lowering profile

In the long term, protecting HRDs public identity and political participation requires exploring and building alternative and horizontal forms of representation and public images that give faithful depictions of the collective contribution of human rights achievements while protecting the individual members of the movements. This could include collective forms of representation, compartmentalisation of identities (pseudonyms, online identities, etc), anonymity, lowering profile protection strategies, taking time off, rotating spokespeople, etc.

RENAMAT in Bolivia make use of “cholita” (traditional dolls) in videos to raise awareness in communities of “environmental violence against women”, tailoring messages to their target audiences while protecting the identities of the members of the collective.

The collective Guerrila Girls have built their identity on anonimity, turning it into a powerful visibility strategy.


3.7 Documenting and recording incidents

Effective records of security incidents require good planing and standards, aiming to counterbalance the normalisation of violence and lack of support networks that results in under-reporting. Defining objectives and the uses for the information will determine the procedure. It will allow for a simplified, manageable and more secure system, limiting the stored information solely to what will be analysed within the overall aim of building counterstrategies. Information must be secured through digital protection standards. Records typically focus at keeping a log of all incidents, including date, time, location, a brief description of what the abuser did, and supporting evidence.

For the purposes of setting and managing a registry of defamation and other attacks against the public image of HRDs, well-being and individual and collective care remains essential, engaging the HRD's support network in the research effort to avoid re-victimisation and re-traumatisation (by repeatedly exposing the affected HRD to the attacks).1 Specific care measures should also be undertaken on behalf of the person/s carrying out monitoring and documentation work.

1See for example Take Back the Tech's infographic “Is you friend being attack online?”, with useful advice for support networks on how to better respond to the needs of women facing online violence Much of the comprehensive research and recommendations developed in recent years over online violence can be helpful when confronting other types of defamation and attacks over HRD's public image.

3.8 Individual and collective care and accompaniment

Individual and collective care addresses the specific well-being and psychosocial needs of W/HRDs confronting attacks on their identity and public image, as a political and key strategy for the sustainability and strength of social movements.

Holistic and effective accompaniment needs reflection and awareness raising on impacts and needs within W/HRDs support networks and can draw from extensive learning on collective protection. Some best practices include:

  • Ensuring proximity, active listening and availability
  • Identifying risks and immediate measures to mitigate and respond to them
  • Activating a support group with multidisciplinary expertise and tasks (psychosocial, digital protection, legal counselling, etc), and ensuring a secure channel of communication
  • Protecting the W/HRD from overexposure to violence, including support in the management of the registry of incidents or urgent personal issues (family arrangements, social media accounts, economic resources…)
  • No judging, re-victimising, blaming or exposing the person
  • Supporting in decision-making always consent based
  • Reaching out to networks for specialised support
  • Recognise it can sometimes be hard to change the situation or threat, at least immediately, but that the W/HRD will still be accompanied.

CASE STUDY – protecting public identities

A trans WHRD with a very public profile was regularly targetted with insults and threats on her social media accounts. At one point, her phone number and picture was shared on an adult site which resulted in a cascade of explicit chat messages on her personal WhatsApp account. She met with her support group and decided on measures of accompaniment focused on her well-being, documenting and analysing the attacks, and reviewing all the information on her that was available online in order to delete any private information that was unnecessarily accessible (private phone number, work address, pictures with children and family members, etc.).

The support group also decided to publicly denounce the latest incident. Instead of organising a press conference, they contacted a trusted journalist in a rights-focused media outlet and prepared messaging, including for difficult questions.

In order for these incidents not to interrupt her ongoing work denouncing gender based violence, the group decided to create a collective identity and online profile that allowed for publishing the work of the WHRD without exposing her as the author.


A. Family, community, HRDs' own movements

  • Work together with the HRDs' to develop strategies and raise awareness on the needs and how to better support HRDs confronting this violence. Agree on collective responses to threats (for example, when to publicly denounce, engage or ignore).
  • Integrate collective care practices in their routines and work plans, with shared responsibilities.
  • Increase attention and space for collective analysis and reflection on defamation. Coordinating with other networks working on Freedom of Expression, cyberfeminism, digital rights and security, etc.
  • Increase coordinated solidarity strategies on visibility and other actions to denounce and counterbalance defamation: podcasts, webinars, counter-campaigns.
  • Review if internally stereotypes are reproduced that can contribute to defamation or stigmatization of members of organizations and movements. Analyse the political practices that may be generating overexposure of individuals or a narrative that increases the risk of the organization or any of its members.
  • Give attention and support to WHRDs who are receiving attacks on their reputation, privacy, etc. by their own families or other members of their organizations.

B. Organisations working on protection

  • Highlight the impact and importance of addressing defamation and other attacks on public image and provide spaces for collective analysis and strategising.
  • Put HRDs at the centre of any alliance, protection process and visibility initiative that is undertaken, respecting and enhancing HRDs’ ownership over their identities and the narratives about them and their struggles. Ensure HRDs and their protection networks are consulted, give consent and lead on efforts to promote their public image and visibility as a tool to increase their protection.
  • Be aware of the limitations of individual approaches to protection and visibility and enable collective protection strategies, adapting and respecting the logic and dynamics of the very movements and communities.

C. Human rights international organisations

  • Put HRDs at the centre of any alliance, protection process and visibility initiative that is undertaken, respecting and enhancing HRDs’ ownership over their identities and the narratives about them and their struggles. Ensure HRDs and their protection networks are consulted, give consent and lead on efforts to promote their public image and visibility as a tool to increase their protection.
  • Become active at earlier stages of attacks or attacks that primarily affect WHRDs, such as defamation. Proactively build trust with W/HRD networks so that they can identify and report these threats at early enough, also by publicly recognising the need to be addressed.
  • Collaborate in advocacy and visibility strategies and efforts to counterbalance harmful narratives on HRDs and combating shrinking civil society space with a focus on alternative social and power models.

D. Human rights donors

  • Provide resources and spaces for reflection and capacity building over defamation and other attacks on public image.
  • Strengthen analysis and digital protection standards on the information that they manage (and publish), including the reduction of unnecessary information that they require from recipient W/HRDs, strengthening awareness and protocols on sensitive information that can't be shared.
  • Raise awareness on security and protection implications on their work and alliance with W/HRDs. Work closely with W/HRDs and local networks on protection planning rooted in the local context. Take particular preventative and response measures over potential defamation of their grantees and around funding of human rights movements.

E. Media and internet service providers

  • Abide by rigorous code of conduct when publishing and contrasting information to avoid contributing to defamation and stigmatisation of HRDs
  • Work together with HRDs and their support networks to carry out effective protection planning when public exposure may entail risks
  • Raise awareness and build capacities among journalists and communicators on visibility for protection of HRDs

1Based on collective analysis by group of WHRDs from the Americas, Front Line Defenders consultation, July 2019.