The dark underbelly of the press

March 3, 2024

Female journalists of Peshawar routinely brave threats, insults and online harassment in the line of duty

The dark underbelly of the press


aheed Jahangir is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist. She started her journalism career at PTV Peshawar Centre and Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, Peshawar, in 2006.

Journalism is a male-dominated field in Peshawar. “When I started, many of my male colleagues advised me to quit. ‘Nobody wants to marry a woman working in the media industry,’ they would say,” Jahangir tells The News on Sunday. “Actually in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, most people conflate the showbiz industry with journalism. Both are supposed to be no-go areas for women. But I persevered,” she says.

According to Jahangir, she faced online abuse when she hosted a news bulletin on Facebook Live, for Tribal News Network a Peshawar-based online news platform. “I would get very hurtful comments when I used to go live,” she says. “People would hurl insults at me. They would pass misogynistic remarks such as: ‘You’re a woman and you’re earning. Are your father and husband incapable? Why are they living off of you? What kind of men are they?’”

Jahangir says the abuse got so bad that she had to ask her editor to filter out such comments. Unfortunately, her predicament didn’t end there. She also faced harassment while reporting from the field.

“It [harassment] was rampant. To my surprise, some of the most high-profile officials turned out to be harassers. It is routine to exchange phone numbers for interviews. But some officials began sending me good morning and goodnight messages. Some invited me for a cup of tea in a private space,” says Jahangir. “Eventually I blocked all these people. But that meant missing out on sources,” she says.

“Of course, I also got appreciation for my work. My family supported me. I am a role model for them. Sadly, harassment is common in this field. It is the one thing keeping women from journalism, especially reporting,” she says.

Laiba Hussain works for a mainstream TV news channel in Peshawar. She started her journalism career in 2019. “I wanted to interview a female member of the Provincial Assembly. I contacted her personal secretary to make an appointment. He kept the interview pending for over a week but sent me inappropriate text messages every day of the week,” she says. “I was relieved when I finally got through to the MPA. I immediately blocked her secretary’s number.”

Laiba says harassment is a common issue for female reporters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “After five years in the field, I still receive invitations from men wanting to discuss a media project over dinner. Thankfully, I know how to turn down such offers,” Laiba says.

Naheed and Laiba’s are not rare cases. Many stories of women journalists’ harassment remain untold. Thousands of female journalists face harassment on an everyday basis but remain committed to the cause of journalism.

Reporters Without Borders data says only five per cent of journalists in Pakistan are women. Peshawar Press Club, with a strength of 522 council members, has only 17 female members.

Irfan Musazai, general secretary of Peshawar Press Club says no harassment case has been reported to the executive so far.

A paper titled Psychological Stressors and Occupational Dysfunction among Journalists Working in a Conflict Zone confirms that harassment is a widespread problem for female journalists. According to a study cited in this paper, nearly two-thirds of 299 surveyed journalists reported that they had faced online harassment at some point in their careers.

For this study, 625 participants were invited. Out of those, 223 responded. The study investigated the experience of online harassment and its association with mental health, in particular depression, anxiety and stress among Pakistani journalists in the KP. The study revealed that online harassment was positively associated with depression, anxiety and stress among journalists working in the conflict zone.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a conservative and restrictive society where women’s participation in public life is discouraged. Many women have to make special efforts to persuade their parents to let them join traditionally male-dominated fields such as journalism. Therefore, they are reluctant to talk about their experience of harassment fearing reprisals from their families. Online harassment is considered a taboo subject in Pakistan, especially in the areas bordering Afghanistan.

The study suggested that there is a need to provide training for journalists on coping with online harassment and its psychological ramifications and provide the tools to help them cope with those. This was the first study that systematically analyzed the relationship between online harassment and occupational dysfunction among journalists in the Global South.

The research findings indicated that online harassment and the mental health ramifications associated with it result in perceived poor performance in newsrooms. Exposure to online harassment not only adversely affects individual journalists but can also disrupt their professional routines and practices. This can negatively impact the quality of news content they produce.

The writer is a freelance multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

The dark underbelly of the press