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December 18, 2022

Online harassment remains a safety concern for women journalists in Pakistan

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aws against cyber harassment were met with a loud cheer when they were first passed several years ago. However, these laws have failed to provide effective protection to women journalists whose complaints against cyber harassment, registered with the Federal Investigation Agency, are often met by a silence. It is not rare to see such women withdraw their complaints and begrudgingly let bygones be bygones.

Women journalists have been a target of online harassment for quite some time. Some have found that whenever they express their opinion or share a scoop on political matters, they receive a series of abusive replies to their posts. Besides sending expletive-laden tweet replies and engaging in character assassination, online harassers routinely dox these women. Such tactics deter many fresh graduates from entering the field.

So why do women continue to feel unsafe in digital spaces even though Pakistan has made a series of laws against such crimes? The Pakistan Penal Code 1860, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 and the Defamation Ordinance 2002 are there to protect them. However, authorities have failed to implement the laws strictly.

Several women journalists have reported that after the 2018 elections, which saw the rise of the PTI to power, there was an unprecedented rise in cyberbullying. At that time, Senator Faisal Javed Khan added that “women journalists should take this matter to the parliament so that all political parties can refer the issue to the relevant department.”

Online harassment has taken a toll on many journalists’ mental health. Prominent journalists, including Asma Shirazi, Naseem Zehra, Ghareeda Farooqi, Amber Shamsi, Benazir Shah, Mehmal Sarfraz, Zebunnisa Burki, Munize Jehangir, Ayesha Baksh, Ramsha Jehangir, Alia Chughtai, Alina Farooqi, Reem Khurshid and Najia Ashar signed a petition in 2020 to highlight online abuse that was making it nearly impossible for them to carry out their professional duties effectively.

These journalists did not shy away from letting authorities know about the abuse they were facing online. All these women are accomplished professionals. However, they were unable to find justice. After these women had spoken about the issue, many journalists from small towns and remote areas also found the courage to talk about the abuse they face online.

Benazir Shah shares, “Many women journalists are silent about the matter because the Federal Investigation Agency does not have a good number of women staff. A lot of women do not feel comfortable with inappropriate questions asked by investigation officers – mostly men – and fail to share the details of their cases.”

The cybercrime wing has around 46 women around the country. 32 of these women are investigation officers and 14 are working in the technical department. The FIA has a total of 200 women workers.

The data received from the FIA’s cyber crime wing shows that only two women journalists filed complaints in the year 2021. One of the journalists later withdrew it. The other, a Rawalpindi-based journalist, is still fighting for justice. Around 2,141 women from across the country have filed complaints with the FIA. Out of these 439 cases have been taken to the courts.

Journalist Asma Shirazi says, “Many women journalists, including me, do not file FIRs. This because there is no fair system in the country.” Shirazi says government institutions are riddled with political influence. She adds, “Once an FIR has been filed, people have to keep making appearances. There is no concept of speedy justice. I have witnessed my character being smeared on a private channel. Immediately after that, I went to the Pemra’s Council of Complaint (CoC). No decision was made on my complaint within the time specified by the law. My case is still pending. This example is enough to highlight the workings of government departments in the country.”

The Digital Rights Foundation reports that between January 2022 and October 2022 48 women journalists filed complaints of online harassment. 13 women reported threats received over social media. At least seven cases against defamation and another seven cases against hacking were filed.

Some of the women journalists logging into their accounts regularly face harassment, abusive tweets and threats. The constant abuse and trolling succeed sometimes in stopping them from expressing their opinions. While some of them take a break from social media, others start self-censorship. Section 24 of the Cyber Crime Act allows victims to file complaints against the harassment they face online.

Many social media users who actively engage in launching attacks against women journalists appear to be part of some political parties. In 2020, several women accused PTI-affiliated accounts of launching vicious campaigns against them and attacking them with abusive tweets. Some of them launched the trend #AttacksWon’tSilenceUs, to record their protest.

In August 2020, a group of these journalists met the then chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and reported that supporters of the government regularly harassed women journalists on social media. They demanded that all political parties take action against such crimes. Around 150 women journalists signed the petition.

Benazir Shah, who was part of the delegation that met Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, says that all journalists produced evidence – screenshots of the tweets presented in print — in front of the commission. However, two years later, there has been no significant progress on the issue.

Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission Rabia Javeri says that when her organisation wrote a letter to the Ministry of Human Rights, urging it to do something about the rising online harassment cases, they never received the minutes of the meeting held to discuss these issues. She says that “the government did not take the complaints filed by women journalists seriously.”

Expressing her disappointment, Asma Shirazi says, “Ideally, all political parties should have formed a parliamentary committee for the protection of journalists against cyber crimes. It is disappointing that they have turned a blind eye to this matter. From the Human Rights Commission to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, no institution paid any attention to the matter.” She also says a political party that uses social media to spread its narrative will never take corrective action.

Women journalists have highlighted the abuse they face on a daily basis countless times, but the institutions they have reached out to appear to be helpless.

The writer is a journalist working for Geo News

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