September 15th, 2020

By Haider Kaleem


Last week a statement was passed by more than 150 women journalists said that attacks by social media users affiliated with political parties, their supporters, and social media wings were increasingly impacting their work, mental wellbeing, and security. Journalists also said that the law enforcement agencies, government, and political parties have not at any point taken notice of the online abuse.

“The purpose of the statement was to bring the issue on record,” stated Farieha Aziz, journalist, and co-founder of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy group with a focus on digital rights and civic responsibility. “The statement described the kinds of attacks launched by ministers, focal persons, and party supporters when journalists, especially women journalists, take to social media to voice opinions that are critical of the ruling party.”

According to the statement, women journalists’ privacy is often violated followed by the gender-based slurs and threats of sexual violence hence they have demanded to be told what the official mandate of the federal and provincial government’s social media cells is along with verifiable transparency regarding their operations. The journalists also stated that these sustained attacks undermine public trust in journalism and democracy while it is also making it difficult for them to remain active and freely engage on the digital platforms without being bullied, harassed, and abused by the online trolls.

Aziz explained that affected women journalists had recorded testimonials and presented a cover letter before the National Assembly Standing Committee on Human Rights, it was accepted that this culture (of launching hate campaigns against women journalists online) is rampant in all government parties.

“But because the PTI is the ruling party, they have a greater responsibility to address these concerns,” she said.

The journalists also urged the government not to use their statement as an excuse for further regulations and curbs on social media in Pakistan.

Responding to the statement on Twitter, the minister of science and technology, Fawad Chaudry said “As Information minister, I asked for comprehensive regulations to regulate social media, print and electronic media but many of the signatories of this statement opposed ANY REGULATION of social media, it’s satisfying that now they realize they were wrong…time to revive #PEMRA”.

“There has been a deliberate effort to use this statement and the issue it highlights to justify more stringent social media regulations,” said journalist and activist Aima Khosa, particularly singling out Fawad Chaudhry’s tweet. “Female journalists have unanimously opposed any such move to curb freedom of expression using online abuse and harassment as an excuse.”

The demands laid out by journalists were careful to avoid misuse and misinterpretation to inculcate laws against freedom of expression using protection against digital violence as an excuse.

The demands laid out by the journalists are as follows:

Immediately draw up and adopt a code of conduct for social media teams of political parties, public bodies, and other public/state institutions.

Investigate within to identify networks that have been prominently engaged in launching and running coordinated attacks, hashtag campaigns, and abusive campaigns against women in media. The Election Commission of Pakistan must direct all political parties to have declared and transparent social media setups under the Right to Access Information Act, 2017.

Initiate investigation and take action against those officials for whom there is evidence available they are directly or indirectly engaged in discrediting and harassing women in media.

Whenever a journalist lodges a complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) or the police regarding intimidation, threats and other forms of digital abuse, the case(s) should be processed fairly and efficiently, without any pressure to withdraw or an environment of victim-blaming.

The Cyber Crime Wing at the FIA must set up dedicated desks to facilitate registration of cases of digital violence against women. Given the fact that digital violence against women has translated to real life and physical violence in the past, the desk should have emergency response mechanisms to facilitate prompt investigations. All officials dealing with cases of digital violence against women must be given comprehensive gender sensitivity training.

The Journalist Protection Bill should be cognizant of the digital threats and violence against journalists and facilitate effective investigations of digital crimes against journalists. All stakeholders and those involved (mentioned in para 2) should be made to adhere to a culture of no tolerance to digital abuse.

“Mr. Chaudhry certainly has his views but women with experience in digital concerns and rights have responded to his statements that they have asked for no new laws,” stated Pakistani journalist and political talk show host, Nasim Zehra. “The statement does not ask for any new laws. There is a debate that surrounds our laws and how effective they are. But we are very conscious of a bill which we are yet to know will create control, and limit spaces for expression, rather than expand the scope of protection to curb online harassment.”

Khosa alleged that political parties have a policy of pushing followers to engage in online abuse and harassment and that rather than limit expression, these parties are morally obligated to devise a code of conduct and imbue ethical behavior in their followers.

“When a group of followers continues to engage in online abuse, it becomes apparent where parties’ moral obligations lie,” she said. She further stated that government functionaries have taken all the steps to ensure their freedom of speech is not curtailed. Functionaries such as Shehbaz Gill, Faisal Vawda give signals that these journalists peddle fake news and propaganda, therefore abusing them is a given. “Their social media accounts follow this “policy”, by screenshotting tweets and posts, and inviting their followers to harass journalists.”

The issue, she elaborated, has been deliberately muddled by the government to avoid responsibility for their followers’ actions, and therefore she has yet to see any satisfactory response from the ruling PTI.

“The statement repeatedly clarified that it should not be used to inculcate regulations,” Aziz explained. “All we ask for is that parties devise a code of conduct, a policy that their supporters must be obligated to adhere to. They should also review how the social media accounts of ministers and focal persons are used online, especially with regards to the kind of language they use, how they single out people, release statements or urge online harassment of certain individuals.”