How a discussion went off the rails

How a discussion went off the rails

The DDoS attack that hit our website around 12 January had only one goal: to silence Observant

15-03-2022 · Editorial

It was no coincidence. The DDoS attack that hit our website around 12 January had only one goal: to silence Observant. In an email, the cyber criminals stated that their attack was a response to publications – on the topic of menstruation and gender – that they view as “transphobic” and “racist”. They wrote that Observant has become “a stage for the far right”, and they will attack the website again if we publish more articles like this.

At the same time, a group of ten anonymous UM students began a campaign against Observant in mid-January because of “discriminatory language”. Under the name Periods have no Gender, they are expressing their dissatisfaction on social media and through posters around the city. They seem to deliberately misinterpret texts they disagree with. This group received the email from the cyber criminals at the same time as Observant did and posted it on Instagram. It’s “the best thing that has happened to us in a long time”, says the caption.

Off the rails

How did the discussion go this badly off the rails? And what was our part in it? It all started with an article on the Feminists of Maastricht initiative to put free menstrual products in UM bathrooms. Observant wrote that the products were intended for “women who can’t afford pads and tampons”. After publication, FOM sent an email asking the journalist who wrote the article to replace the word “women” by “people”. Their request was denied, which led to an email exchange that ended with an email in which the journalist distinguishes between emotion (gender) and science (sex). It’s an unfortunate email, the journalist in question agrees in retrospect, and it does not reflect Observant’s views. Gender diversity is a fact; we do not question that, contrary to what FOM et al. accuse us of.


Why, then, does Observant stick with the words “women menstruate”? The question of when to use “man”, “woman”, “person” or some other word is currently the subject of much debate, still far from reaching a consensus. Just look at a recent NRC article on period underwear, or the NOS Journaal news segment on menstrual leave for women in Spain. Both refer exclusively to women. We are not leading the way in this discussion, so we will stick with the “old-fashioned” terms for the time being. In personal interviews, we use people’s preferred pronouns: if an interviewee identifies as “they” rather than “he” or “she”, we use “they”.

Bad blood

Anyway, the journalist’s email created bad blood between Observant and FOM. Next, we received an aggressively worded email announcing that FOM felt forced to “mobilise [its] community” because Observant had not met their demands. As journalists, we have seen a thing or two, but the tone has seriously never been this toxic in the history of Observant. We emailed FOM twice to invite them to write a letter expressing their views, while pointing out that their threat was an attack on the freedom of the press. After FOM’s second email – the threat persisted – the editorial team considered taking the sting out of the situation by adding a parenthetical note to explain that “FOM prefers to use the word ‘people’”. In the end, we didn’t. Why not? We didn’t want to reward aggressive language and threats.

In early December, I wrote an editorial (a recurring column in which I, as editor-of-chief, write about what has been happening at the Observant office) about this threat to the freedom of the press. The article received a lot of indignant comments – almost all pro-FOM – and eventually a letter from FOM. Meanwhile, my personal email inbox filled up with messages of support for Observant, all from UM staff members who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

DDoS attack

On Monday 10 January we published two opinion pieces, one by a female-to-male transgender student and another by an anonymous staff member who calls herself “gender critical” and explains why she wants to remain anonymous: for fear of reprisals. The latter article was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for the cyber criminals: how dare Observant publish an opinion piece like that! The DDos attack was launched. We found out about it around 12 January and reported it to the police after the cyber criminals sent us an email. According to the police, it’s almost one hundred per cent certain that they bought the DDoS attack.

The DDoS attack was met with cheers from the ten anonymous students in Periods have no Gender. Their post was liked by FOM, among others, but also by a subgroup of Amnesty Maastricht, whose parent organisation usually stands up for press freedom. They are all committed to transgender rights and fighting for inclusivity. This is commendable, but at the same time they are convinced that there is only one truth in this matter: their truth. They know what is right and wrong. Anyone with a different opinion is wrong. And you don’t have to respect people who think differently, as they have written themselves in one of their posts. There is no place for that category of people in their inclusive world.

Public debate

Where do we go from here? Both freedom of the press and freedom of expression are of great importance, not just to the independent press, but also and especially to an academic community. One of our purposes is to encourage public debate based on arguments, not on threats. In Observant, both on our website and in the print version.

But wouldn’t it also be good to have an open discussion within UM about press freedom, freedom of expression, wokeness, inclusivity, cancel culture, and so on? Accessible to everyone, and where people cross swords based on mutual respect and arguments, led by an experienced discussion leader? The editorial team would be happy to participate in this and report on it.

Author: Riki Janssen

Illustration: Simone Golob

Tags: ddos attack,cyberattack,fom,gender,cybercrime,editorial



"the journalist in question agrees in retrospect, and it does not reflect Observant’s views. Gender diversity is a fact; we do not question that, contrary to what FOM et al. accuse us of."
So interesting, we have never heard this before, the journalist in question NEVER apologised for using explicitly transphobic language but all of a sudden is now agreeing? We'd love if he could elaborate on this publicly.


Oh please, don’t make it about “freedom of the press or expression” when in reality, you and the Observant are bigoted. Rather than use terminology that ACTUAL gender studies and feminist scholars promote, you non-experts want to act as if you know better? I didn’t know everyone from the Observant had a degree in sociology or gender studies, and that you represent the consensus on what is consider gender-inclusive language. Wow, don’t we all look like suckers!

The facts, regardless of what YOU believe, are:

People who menstruate use menstrual products. Plain and simple.

To be blatantly ignorant about this fact and still insist that only women use menstrual products means that you assume EVERY woman uses menstrual products. Believe it or not, there are women who cannot use these products for a variety of reasons. In your eyes, are they less of a woman? I didn’t known womanhood = using menstrual products.

This isn’t about journalistic integrity—this is about being dismissive about the lived realities of real breathing people.

Here’s some advice on how to actually do journalism: go find experts within the UM university, talk to people who menstruate, and then write something that represents THEIR experience.

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