aiba Zainab, a journalist based in Lahore, works for an online news platform. She has been repeatedly subjected to harassment and online trolling leading her to adopt a form of self-censorship when expressing herself on social media.
Reflecting on her experience, Laiba says, “I have maintained a Facebook page for several years. However, when I posted a video about Aurat March in 2020, I was met with an onslaught of serious online threats including death and rape threats. Then there was character assassination. It became so overwhelming that I had to disable my notifications.”
Recalling a particularly distressing incident, she says, “There was a time when I shared a photo and the response was a torrent of vicious trolling that quickly went viral. People attacked me based on my appearance, skin colour and other personal attributes.”
“Now… every time I contemplate posting something on social media, I find myself engaging in a significant amount of deliberation. Sadly, some individuals took my images to create hurtful memes. These incidents have left me hyper-aware and cautious,” she says.
“I have lodged complaints with the Federal Investigation Agency on two occasions,” Laiba says, “once online and once through my brother. In both instances, I highlighted the online threats and harassment I’ve endured, notably during the 2020 Aurat March protests. However, to date, no substantial action has been taken in response to these reports. So far, no official has made contact with me.”
Expressing her concern for the broader implications, Laiba says, “I firmly believe that establishing secure online spaces for female journalists is a vital necessity in our country. Policymakers must take tangible steps to safeguard the online well-being of female journalists. While it is our responsibility to shed light on social and cultural issues in the society, the intense backlash, verbal abuse and organised campaigns targeting such efforts compel female journalists to resort to self-censorship. Unless authorities address and combat these issues proactively, the scourge of online trolling against female journalists might intensify.”
Aneesa Kanwal, a journalist hailing from Bahawalpur, says she has been a target of extensive trolling and harassment.
Recalling a particularly disheartening incident, Aneesa says, “In December 2022, I shared a story that addressed the shortage of teachers in Bahawalpur. For this, I was attacked by trolls across various social media platforms.”
“Some people went so far as to screenshot my stories and circulate them through WhatsApp groups. Some launched vehement attacks against both me and my journalistic endeavours. I was receiving late-night messages, carrying derogatory names and unwarranted criticism. Sadly, some of the trolls were teachers.”
Aneesa says the experience has impacted her willingness to share certain stories on social media. “I get apprehensive when it comes to sharing my work on these platforms,” she says.
“Recently, after I penned a post on a social issue on my Facebook page,” Aneesa says, “the comment section was inundated with vitriolic remarks, replete with abusive language directed at me.”
Aneesa has not reported the matter to the authorities. “While the thought of reporting such behaviour has crossed my mind, the arduous process [that follows] has dissuaded me. Instead, I cope by blocking some of these trolls even though it does little to take the sting out of their words.”
According to Rabbia Arshad, a Lahore-based freelance journalist, she has to be cautious about sharing her work online. ‘’I hardly share my work online,” she says. “Some of my friends used to share their work on social media. They would receive threatening messages. ‘We know where you are’ some of the messages would warn,” she says.
Online violence and digital harassment against women range from abuse and attacks on their work to threats, attempts at blackmail, circulating pictures of the women, trolling, character assassination to sending unsolicited pictures and stalking. Cyber harassment is an offence Pakistan. A complaint can be registered with the FIA.
According to a report released by Digital Rights Foundation ‘’in 2022, the DRF helpline received 75 complaints from journalists and media practitioners: 34 females, 40 males and one trans-person.
The report mentions that the cyber harassment helpline received the highest number of complaints - around 25 per cent - from the Punjab. “51 of the complaints received from journalists were of cyber harassment,” it says.
According to a study conducted by the Pakistan Press Foundation ‘’…as the role of digital media and online platforms become increasingly relevant, media have come under attack online also. Some of the attacks against women journalists take on a gendered nature.”
A research by Media Matters for Democracy in 2019, found that ‘’out of 113 participants only three said they had reported online abuse to law enforcement agencies.” The report says that the precipitants did not think the FIA took their complaints seriously.
On July 4, 2023, journalist Manahil Sarfraz from Gujranwala faced online harassment after she uploaded a video highlighting certain social issues.
“I was frightened. There were many threatening messages. Even some of my friends started trolling me... Seeing the situation, I asked the admin of the page to turn off the comments section and delete the comments,” Sarfraz says.
Sarfraz says, “I had no idea what to do about it… I was not aware of any safety tools or how to report it and where.”
Ayesha Khalid, a communication manager and lead project coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, a media organisation working for media literacy and digital democracy says most of the women journalists face trolling and harassment when they share their work online.
“The reason this trolling and harassment of women journalists is different from their male colleagues is basically that when female journalists are attacked, they are mostly attacked on a personal level. It is seldom about their work.”
FIA was contacted for this story but didn’t respond.
Who in the FIA?
The writer is a freelancejournalist. She tweets SaBa_Ch