Friday September 22, 2023

Target: the journalist

By Editorial Board
October 22, 2021

In a country that was ranked last year as the second most dangerous place in which to be a journalist, the messenger continues to remain under attack. From threats of violence to actual violence to online bullying, Pakistan’s journalists face it all. However, the most disturbing is when state and government representatives and political parties take to outright public attacks against a journalist – leading to even more bullying and trolling of the journalist online. And things become much worse when the journalist happens to be a woman. We have over the past few days seen some of the most vile social media trends against senior journalist Asma Shirazi. We have seen the official social media accounts of the ruling party attack one respected journalist for an opinion piece. We have seen, on top of it all, a dangerous press conference by Special Adviser to the PM, Shahbaz Gill – all 10 minutes of it containing direct attacks on Ms Shirazi.

Much has been written – time and again – on the right to freedom of expression being a basic right of all citizens in the country – enshrined in the constitution under Article 19. Unfortunately, the PTI government has consistently shown clear disquiet over a situation where people can express views that may not fall in line with the party’s interpretation of events. We have also been pointing out that women journalists in the country have been facing intense harassment online these past few years – where even the slightest dissent leads to a near-frenzy online, with special advisers and other government representatives doing all they can to rile supporters up even more, some in particularly despicable fashion. There has been a disturbing increase in slurs and innuendos used against journalists —especially women journalists – that dare to disagree with a given narrative. This in itself reflects on the overall mindset within the top hierarchy of the party, given that there appears to be no effort to stop this kind of (over)reaction. The kind of vicious attacks and character assassination Ms Shirazi has been subjected to for the past few days, especially in the Thursday press conference by Mr Gill should be unacceptable in any civilised society. Absolutely nothing justifies the way Ms Shirazi has been singled out and attacked with dangerous rhetoric employing misogyny, religion, ‘patriotism’ and allegations of corruption. Evidently, going beyond critiques of journalists’ work and instead subjecting them to harassment and targeting their person – often using their gender as a weapon against them – has become the ruling party’s reaction of choice.

The PTI has to recognise that free expression is essential to any country, and this is a true test of any democracy. From social media trends against journalists asking questions about the power or gas sector, or the rising inflation, or the sugar crisis to blatant misogyny and barely veiled attacks on women journalists to laws such as the PMDA: it seems the government is just not interested in a free press at all. The fact is that what Asma Shirazi has faced, and what others have faced before her too, is pure harassment, coordinated and intended to silence and stigmatise journalists. The proverbial thick skin of the journalist must not be tested to this extent. There is a clear difference between critique and harassment. Those that can’t see it never really wanted to see it in the first place.