While the rapid growth of social media has brought the world together, this new era of digital connectivity has raised pressing issues of privacy and digital safety.
Since the 2013 General Election, when the now-ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) first put social media to effective use in garnering support, the digital presence of all political parties in Pakistan has increased manifold. Political parties and religious groups now maintain well-structured digital outfits to spread their message — including the use of ‘keyboard warriors’ to trend supportive hashtags and troll armies which attack opponents online.
Journalists in Pakistan, like their counterparts abroad, have been frequently targeted and harassed in cyber spaces by fake accounts (known as bots) as well as real persons, with an aim to quell dissenting voices by labeling them as ‘fake news’ and ‘traitors’, among other disparaging terms.
Even though male journalists are subjected to harassment as well, the most vitriolic assaults are borne by female journalists who are slut-shamed and/or receive threats of rape, abduction and death.
As women in our culture are generally expected to stay silent on serious matters supposedly the realm of men only, female journalists who started exercising their right to freedom of expression online have not been spared.
Recently, a group of female journalists from across the country issued a statement on the attacks they face online. “The target of these attacks are women with differing viewpoints and those whose reports have been critical of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s government, and more specifically its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The online attacks are instigated by government officials and then amplified by a large number of Twitter accounts, which declare their affiliation to the ruling party,” read the statement.
The timelines of these journalists’ social media profiles were flooded with gender-based slurs, threats of sexual and physical violence, attempts to hack into their accounts, and, in some cases, their pictures were photo-shopped as a means of harassment.
While the disclosures were not surprising, the coming together of female journalists on a common platform for collective change came as a relief and stirred the male-dominated corridors of power.
The National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights invited the complainants to air their grievances on record while Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari assured them of looking into the matter.
Appreciating the committee chairman’s response, Tanzeela Mazhar, an anchor at GTV, said, “I know so many journalists who have started to self-censor online only because they have been targeted. Their families are also pressuring them to quit journalism as their lives are not safe.”
Terming it an extended form of gender-based violence, Jannat Fazal, programme manager at the Cyber Harassment Helpline of Digital Rights Foundation, said, “Female journalists are character assassinated and slut-shamed for voicing their opinion, which forces self-censorship and prevents them from working. “It also violates their right to free speech, affecting their mental wellbeing,” she added.
Explaining the main reasons behind such attacks, Jannat shared that “impunity and anonymity means they can spew hate and get away with it in online spaces as compared to offline spaces.”
The only way for female journalists to stay safe, she emphasised, is by managing their privacy and security settings, and be cognisant of the personal details they share so people don’t misuse them.
Tehreem Azeem, a blogger at Independent Urdu, said, “Just recently someone from India tagged me in a Tweet with a death threat. It’s also very common for a woman to receive unsolicited messages from men online.” She claimed that her complaints to the Pakistan Citizen Portal and Federal Investigation Agency’s Cyber Crime Wing have gone unheeded.
However, Asif Iqbal, an assistant director at the agency’s cyber crime wing, said he does not know about any complaints from female journalists but if there are, he assured he would look into it.
Commenting on the women journalists’ assertions regarding the PTI-linked accounts, Iqbal said, “Just because an account is using a display picture of a PTI flag or [PTI supremo] Imran Khan, it does not mean they belong to the party.” He assured that all violators of the law will be dealt with without any fear or favour.
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“There is no doubt journalists are being targeted and I strongly condemn it but just because the accounts have a picture of Imran Khan or call themselves ‘Insafians’ doesn’t mean they belong to the party,” explained Sadia Sohail, a PTI lawmaker in Punjab.
“I have seen groups on social media affiliated with Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) asking people to make fake accounts under PTI’s name,” she claimed further.
PML-N’s Additional Secretary Information Punjab Salman Butt, on the other hand, blamed Imran Khan for promoting the kind of language his supporters now use. “No one in Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) or PML-N uses such language and their supporters do not behave in such a manner.”
Farhatullah Babar, a senior PPP leader, strongly condemned the online attacks. “It’s shameful that Prime Minister Imran Khan said his wife should not be subjected to commentary as she is not in politics,” he commented, adding that, “Does this mean women in politics or public spaces should be treated in such a manner?”