A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest against an alleged gang rape of a woman, in Karachi on September 18, 2020. Credit: Asif Hassan/AFP
Attacks on women journalists are common in patriarchal societies like Pakistan with threats ranging from verbal abuse, blackmail, physical harm and rape.
But more recently, social media has served to amplify aggression, most notably since 2014 when several women journalists were targeted while covering protest rallies organised by political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) against the then-Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. That party is now Pakistan’s ruling party.
Social media’s rising popularity means that offline attacks are often mirrored online, initiated by a ring leader who announces a ‘call to arms’ to “grab your keyboards”. And so the online attacks begin. In this environment, the online space is a hotbed for coordinated troll armies that swoop on a marked target or group. The anonymity provided by the platforms makes the attackers bolder and more vicious, and the threats more serious.
During the coronavirus pandemic, troll armies focused on women journalists who were raising their voices and questioning the government’s strategy during the pandemic.
Farieha Aziz, a journalist and co-founder of Bolo Bhi – a civil society organization geared towards advocacy, policy and research in the areas of digital rights and civic responsibility – agrees that online attacks on women journalists have not only become more widespread but also more systematic.
“These attacks are being launched in an organised manner and from official accounts,” she said, underlining the harm the attacks have on the mental well-being of journalists. “While women have been facing such issues for a long time, the continuous nature of these attacks and the intensity with which they have increased over time, led women journalists to speak out about it and come together to do that.”
“For some it is every day, multiple times a day. To be subjected to constant abuse, sexualised slurs and threats, hacking attempts, it takes a toll and also causes a chilling effect. To manage, journalists stop engaging, posting or checking their mentions. This is also hinders their work.”
Apart from serious threats and abuse, women journalists have had personal data leaked and faced constant hacking attempts of social media accounts. While regulations exist to tackle these crimes, they do not go far enough.
Aziz says that under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA) 2016, there are offences that cover the abuse and can be reported to the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency). Attacks can also be reported to the platform.
“But of course these remedies do not always work,” she said. “Beyond basic safety measures and adopting these, there is little else unfortunately.”
Tired of the constant stream of venomous attacks against women journalists, journalist and anchor Amber Rahim Shamsi had enough.
After her own experience with online abuse, she decided to take things into her own hands and got together with other women journalists dealing with the same problem. Together, they issued a joint statement condemning the constant threats and attacks.
“I noticed that a couple of officials were tagging a lot of women journalists who had been covering Covid-19 or asking questions about Covid-19, particularly in Punjab,” she said. “What followed was a huge number of coordinated attacks against myself and other journalists who were the first 15 signatories of the statement. And while we have come to accept attacks from these troll armies as normal, I realized that it really shouldn’t be. We need to unite and deal with these collectively rather than individually.”
“A few of us planned a strategy on what to do and how to collectively respond which is what prompted that first statement.”
She said it was “thoroughly heartening” to see that the first statement start off with 15 signatures then go up to 160.
“The support had been widespread from Pakistan and outside of Pakistan and across professions as well – unions; media freedom organizations – they have all supported our first statement. And we’ve seen how the United Nations High Commissioner and the Pakistani Human Rights Minister also mentioned our statement and asked the government to respond and to support our demands as well,” she said.
The signatories of the first joint statement also met with members of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee of Human Rights regarding the serious issue of online attacks against women journalists. But apart from cursory reassurances, no substantive steps have yet been taken to change the situation.
Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, did promise to look into the matter when the group met the Standing Committee, according to Shamsi.
“While there has been a lot of applause on the second statement, again nobody has reached out,” she elaborated. “Instead we’ve been told that we have an agenda and deliberately excluded other women journalists who had different experiences, and all manner of gas-lighting instead of engaging or taking any steps on what we had asked for.”
While the response from the Pakistani government has been muted, the joint statements have received a lot of support from media bodies and organisations inside Pakistan.
“It’s been fantastic to see that PFUJ (Pakistan Federation of Journalists) and KUJ (Karachi Union of Journalists) have supported both statements. This is an important step.”
“Our strategies are multi-leveled and we are trying to engage social media companies, as well as look at how journalists in other countries are finding solutions to this particular problem. We keep strategizing for the next step; we will not stop at the statement.”
Second joint statement
Journalist and anchor Maria Memon was one of the main forces behind the second joint statement. She too, is not new to online and offline attacks – which started during the 2014 rallies and sit-in. At the time, she was targeted after her wedding day with her personal photos, release of her husband’s bio-data and inappropriate comments were posted under her leaked wedding pictures. Since then she has routinely found herself in the crosshairs of online trolls.
“The pattern is very clear,” she said. “You tweet something criticizing any political party across the board, not just the government. First someone from that party will respond to you in a very dignified way and talk and engage with you. But after that a troll army is unleashed using the worst abusive language against you.”
She says women journalists are told to take such attacks in their stride and too often male journalists tell women “to suck it up”.
“If you have a difference of opinion, we can bear that and even tolerate abuses but when we get threats of rape and other physical harm, then I don’t think anyone should tolerate this because your physical existence is endangered.”
While the government fails to take any concrete steps to resolve the issue, Memon says that women need to take their own action before more real harm is done. Until now, they have not spoken to other political parties but, she says, they plan to pursue it further. “We won’t let it go . . . we have to find a solution before someone is physically harmed.”
Lack of political will
Journalist Farieha Aziz says in a volatile environment like Pakistan where online remarks can lead to real physical harm, it is critical that Pakistan’s government take the issue seriously.
“There is only so much individuals can do and should be expected to do,” she said. She believes basic technical safety measures can be adopted and reporting made possible through existing mechanisms.
“But the only way to really reduce and prevent (these attacks) requires political will. The issue is one of a culture of abuse and this has to be rectified, first by the government and all involved personnel and accounts and then by political parties in general to set a tone.”
A key positive of the two joint statements was that journalists across the board united. This media fraternity unity is seen as vital to putting the necessary pressure on the government and others to ensure online spaces are safer for all journalists in Pakistan, especially women.
“It was good to see union support,” Aziz said. “This kind of solidarity was previously missing and should continue and be sustained. Unions should focus on digital training, creating a more inclusive and less hostile culture from a gender perspective.