Attacks won’t silence us

August 30, 2020

What began as a recent experience of a small group of women journalists has expanded across parties, and beyond boundaries. The ball is now in the court of the government and the parliament. They must ensure that women journalists are able to do their job without fear

When journalist and commentator Mehmal Sarfaraz asked parliamentarian Mohsin Dawar to read a text message she had received on her analysis of Sindh’s Covid-19 response, there was shocked silence in the National Assembly’s spacious committee room.

I and a group of women journalists and digital rights activists had been invited to a hearing of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Bilawal Bhutto and attended by Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari among other members.

Mohsin Dawar read a few lines, his voice faltered, and he stopped. “I don’t think I can read any more [of it]. This is too disgusting to read here.” Mehmal’s husband was also sitting in the room.

Mehmal Sarfaraz had already read some of the tweets she receives on a regular basis, all equally disgusting, which were submitted for the standing committee record. Mehmal, myself and others submitted thick binders of the abuse – mostly sexualised, some calling for rape, to leave the country, to die, calling into question our sexuality, in some cases doctored photos and videos, our parenthood, insinuating that we have slept our way to our positions, and direct accusations of taking lifafas from political parties. It is relentless, it is every day and often seems to be coordinated, and many among us have had to face multiple hacking attempts into our Twitter accounts. I was locked out of mine for five days.

The increasing online harassment and abuse in the last few months had compelled me and a group of other women journalists to issue a statement in mid-August explaining that these campaigns impinged on our freedom of expression and our ability to do our jobs. We had called on the human rights committees of the Senate and National Assembly to hold the government accountable and for the human rights minister as well as other government officials to restrain their members.

When we first issued the statement with the hashtag #AttacksWon’tSilenceUS, we were fifteen. By the end of the day, twenty others reached out to us, asking to endorse the statement. Our hashtag was trending at the top on Twitter. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Karachi Union of Journalists too endorsed our statement, as well as male colleagues and parliamentarians. Within a week, the National Assembly’s standing committee asked us to appear for a hearing.

The hearing lasted for over four hours and testimony after testimony underscored the fact that online and offline abuse has made it increasingly difficult for women journalists to work without fear. There was a powerful rush of solidarity in the committee room that day, of having our voices heard, even though we all had such varied experiences. While many of us identified government spokespersons and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-linked abusive accounts as central to the recent coordinated campaigns, others talked about their experiences preceding 2020, and of other political parties too having been involved in these attacks.

What began as the recent experience of a small group of women journalists had expanded across parties, and beyond boundaries.

Journalists have come to accept trolling as a part of their job on social media where the contest between narratives and truth is fierce, when it should neither be acceptable nor normalized. Political parties, their leaders, and particularly those in government – with regulatory and law-enforcement agencies under them, and material and human resources at their disposal – bear the greatest responsibility.

We went public.

They reacted.

Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari expressed sympathy for the abuse and promised to look into our documents showing links between the abuse and the ruling party’s official and unofficial social media accounts. But, the PTI has so far gone on the offensive. Instead of reaching out to us, or engaging, or even just listening, we have been subject to a kind of dog-whistling, where coded language in tweets - such as fake news, agenda-driven campaign, unpatriotic, so-called journalists - has triggered a fresh onslaught against some of the original signatories. Among the prominent government representatives are Planning Minister Asad Umar, Prime Minister’s Political Advisor Dr Shehbaz Gill and Water Minister Faisal Vawda.

It is relentless, it is every day and often seems to be coordinated, and many among us have had to face multiple hacking attempts into our Twitter accounts. I was locked out of mine for five days.

Amnesty International defines such coordinated campaigns as online harassment and discrimination, going so far as to say that governments need to protect women from human rights abuses. According to a recent investigation by Reporters Without Borders only 4 percent of journalists in Pakistan are women, making them particularly vulnerable to both offline and online violence, abuse and discrimination.

Beyond borders

A scene from the short TV series Mrs America, set forty years ago, captures how the decades pass and yet women keep being punished for being opinionated and challenging the norm.

Journalist, feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem is at the office floor of the magazine she co-founded, Ms. Suddenly, the phones start ringing off the hook. Men are calling, asking for explicit sexual acts. It’s a campaign orchestrated by a publisher of a porn magazine Al Goldstein, which began with a graphic and photo-shopped picture of Steinem with the telephone numbers of Ms published in his magazine’s centerfold. It served to humiliate, belittle and intimidate, to teach women their place. Back then, it was landline and telephones, now it’s any troll with a smartphone and anger issues. Now imagine psychoses amplified or tacitly encouraged by men and women in power.

This is not limited to Pakistan. The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), an NGO, has brought together a coalition of press foundations, journalist safety groups and feminist organisations to help women journalists combat online attacks. Among them is Gloria Steinam’s Ms. magazine. The IWMF has dedicated free resources such as online trainings for individuals and newsrooms to help deal with coordinated attacks and trolls. Clearly, solutions need to be found that do not include fresh draconian regulation.

Since we went public with our statement, the international network Coalition of Women in Journalism (CWIJ), the International Press Institute, the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have publicly supported our cause.

The CWIJ has been documenting online abuse and harassment against Pakistani women journalists since 2014. The profiles of these journalists range from anchors to reporters to producers and cut across ideological divides. The coalition’s documentation finds that 3.39 per cent of trolls have a PML-N bias, 5.08 per cent have a bias against the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, and 20.34 per cent have a bias towards Islamist political parties. The majority of attacks – over 70 per cent - are equally shared by two categories: general misogyny or those that have links with the PTI.

As we try to include the stories of more women journalists from Pakistan, who have faced similar campaigns from other political parties, and engage in conversations with international groups to find solutions, the ball is now in the court of parliament and the ruling party. This is not political; it is about human rights, even if the ruling party is a political party.

The writer is a multimedia journalist, and host of the show Sawaal with Amber. She tweets at @AmberRShamsi

Attacks won’t silence us