31 December 2022
By Ahmed Saeed
“It is continuous harassment, unlike fleeting physical harassment where the perpetrator goes away. It has an impact.”
“The harasser continues to harass you again and again and each time the trauma feels like it’s the first time.”
Areej* is a survivor of digital violence, at the hands of someone whom she considered a close friend. She says the person sent compromising pictures and videos of her to her mother with a clear intention to blackmail her.
However, unlike most other victims of such crimes, Areej has decided not to fall prey to the abuse and to fight back against her harasser. The first debilitating task however was dealing with her own family.
“He sent my mother the footage through WhatsApp,” says Areej recalling how her family shocked by the incident initially berated and yelled at her. However, her brother who has been taking care of her ever since their father’s death came to her defence. He assured her that although they could not erase the pictures and videos, they could at least punish the sender for this crime by reporting it to the FIA.
Unfortunately, any hope Areej and her family had with the Federal Investigation Agency quickly faded away. The FIA investigating officer allegedly undermined the crime and tried to convince her that she should just forgive the culprit as the agency had seized all the data from the accused.
“They said that my father is dead – how would I visit the courts?”
The officer even reached out to her mother telling her to withdraw the case as she was the complainant on her daughter’s behalf. Helpless and dejected by the authorities Areej and her mother reluctantly agreed to not contest the perpetrator’s bail.
The investigating officer (IO) told her that FIA will provide her with a lawyer. At court, the lawyer introduced himself to Areej as acting on her behalf but was in fact a lawyer hired by the accused. She uncovered this deception much later after the hearing.
Areej is now represented by Jannat Ali Kalyar, a lawyer based in Lahore. Jannat opines that FIA is partly to blame in such cases of cyber crimes against women and girls as their priority is reconciliation between the parties rather than justice. In the former instances, the case is dropped and officers have less hassle with paperwork, evidence and other administrative legal tasks.
As Jannat notes, “Definitely, the IOs in FIA are compromised. They favour the accused more and they usually try to manipulate or convince the complainant to reach a compromise with the accused and once you compromise with the accused then no one takes the responsibility.”
This is exactly what happened with Areej. After the perpetrator’s bail, the crime took a turn for the worst. After being released, the perpetrator enraged and vindictive uploaded the explicit material on multiple pornographic sites all over the internet.
“Four or five days after his release on bail, I received an Instagram message of a video screenshot. I thought the screenshot was edited at first as he knew editing. How can someone stoop so low as to upload such material on porn sites? But to my surprise, he did this. When I reverse-image searched the screenshot, I found a lot of search results. I opened all the links and learned how to report it and had them removed one by one.”
Areej complained to the FIA again but they asked her why didn’t she oppose the bail and that now they can’t do anything.
The agency didn’t even assist her in removing the content claiming that they didn’t know how to remove it. Areej recalls how when she opened the websites she found that she wasn’t the only girl whose pictures and videos were being misused.
“When I opened those websites, I found a huge cache of data of Pakistani girls along with their contact details.
Had none of them reported it to FIA? Why didn’t they remove them? There were thousands of views on each video!”
Areej attempted to file a second complaint but instead of registering the FIR, the agency confiscated her mobile phone for several months on the pretext that she was using it to record them. Even now FIA has not lodged a second case against the accused for publishing sexually explicit material online. Her request to cancel the bail of the accused was turned down.
According to Areej, FIA investigating officer told her that they only arrest those who propagate material using WhatsApp. They do not lodge an FIR unless a clear link is established connecting the accused to the content.
The inaction by the FIA and the courts further emboldened the accused and he shared the objectionable material with Areej’s friends and relatives.
“It was really traumatizing. I was in college back then and I could not travel alone. I could not face my class fellows because he sent them the footage as well after he was released on bail.”
“Each time someone used their phone, I felt as if they were watching my pictures and videos. I would overthink these things and could not sleep properly.”
Her lawyer Jannat stated that “it is very unfortunate that the court’s attitude towards the survivors of digital violence is similar to the victims of GBV. If you approach the court for relief after a compromise or apprise the court that the accused has violated the bail conditions, it is a challenge to prove.
Then there is also the role of the investigating agency as to what extent they support the survivor. Because in the end, the court will ask the investigating agency for evidence and based on that, the court will give its verdict.
Speaking to Voicepk, the Director of FIA’s Cyber Crime, Jahanzaib Nazir Khan refuted the allegations that the agency has ever asked any complainant to get the accused released on bail. The director did however concede that the agency does not have complete capacity to remove objectionable material.
Years later the harassment still continues but in a different way. Areej now faces it in courts as she tries to get justice and manoeuvre around a legal system that is susceptible to victim-blaming. Nevertheless, Areej has not given up hope. She is optimistic that the perpetrator will be punished someday. Today she has chosen to fight against digital violence on behalf of other women too. She advises survivors to speak up instead of being buried within a spiral of silence.
She calls on other women, especially teenage girls to confide in their families if such an incident happens. As she observes the perpetrators aim to blackmail and harass the victim so by speaking to your family you take away that power. She believes apologizing to your own family is better than continuing the cycle of abuse and blackmail. Areej also advises other survivors of digital violence to report it but also to never step back and never let their harasser get bail.
This report is part of Voicepk.net’s series Against Gender-Based Digital Violence and was made through the support of the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (#CFLI).