Laws against cyber harassment were met with a loud cheer when they were first passed several years ago. However, these laws have failed to provide any sort of protection to Pakistani women journalists whose complaints against cyber harassment, registered with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), are received by horrifyingly criminal silence. It is not rare to witness that most women withdraw their complaints and begrudgingly let bygones be bygones.
Women journalists have remained a victim of online harassment for quite some time now. Whenever they express their opinion or share the inside scoop on political matters, they receive a series of abusive replies to their posts. Besides sending expletive-laden tweet replies and engaging in character assassination, online harassers routinely dox these women journalists. Such tactics deter fresh graduates from entering the field of journalism.
The question is: why do women continue to feel unsafe on digital spaces even though Pakistan has a series of laws against such digital crimes? The Pakistan Penal Code 1860, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, and the Defamation Ordinance 2002, are there to offer protection to women. However, authorities have failed to implement them strictly.
Several women journalists have shared that after the 2018 elections that saw the rise of the PTI to power, there was an unprecedented rise in cyber bullying. At that time, Senator Faisal Javed Khan added that “women journalists should take this matter to parliament so that all political parties can refer the issue to the relevant department and give orders to probe it in an efficient manner.”
Online harassment has taken a toll on many journalists’ mental health. Prominent journalists including Asma Shirazi, Naseem Zehra, Ghareeda Farooqi, Amber Shamsi, Benazir Shah, Mehmal Sarfraz, Zebunnisa Burki, Munize Jehangir, Ayesha Baksh, Ramsha Jehangir, Alia Chughtai, Alina Farooqi, Reem Khurshi, Najia Ashar, and others signed a petition in 2020 to highlight how online abuse is making it nearly impossible for them to carry out their journalistic duties effectively.
These are those journalists who have not shied away from letting authorities know about the abuse they face online. All of these women journalists are accomplished and enjoy great reputation in the field. But they are unable to find justice in a fractured system. However, ever since these women spoken about this crucial issue, many journalists from small towns and remote areas have also found courage to talk about the abuse they keep facing online.
Senior journalist and analyst Benazir Shah shares, “Many women journalists are silent over the matter because the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) does not have a good number of women staff members. A lot of women do not feel comfortable with inappropriate questions asked by investigation officers – most of whom are men – and fail to share the full details of their cases.”
According to Chairperson Women’s Police, the cyber crime wing department has around 46 women around the country. The statistics further reveals that around 32 women are investigative officer, and 14 women are working in the technical department. She shares that the FIA has a total of 200 women workers.”
The data received from the FIA’s cyber crime wing shows that only two women journalists filed complaints in the last one year (2021). One of the journalists has withdrawn her case, while the second person, who is from Rawalpindi, is still fighting for justice. Around 2,141 women from across the country have filed complaints in the FIA, out of which 439 cases have been taken to the courts.
Senior journalist Asma Shirazi shares her thought on the lack of complaints initiated by women journalists, “It is true that many women journalists, including me, do not file FIRs. But they do so because there is no fair system in the country.” Shirazi also expresses how government institutions are riddled with political influence. She adds, “Once an FIR has been fired, people have to keep making appearances to get their case resolved. There is no concept of speedy justice. I have witnessed how my character was assassinated by a private channel. Immediately after that, I went to the Pemra’s Council of Complaint (CoC). No decision was made on my complaint within the time specified by the law. My case is still pending. This example is enough to highlight the workings of government departments in the country.”
The Digital Rights Foundation, an organization working for women’s rights, reveals that between January 2022 and October 2022, around 48 women journalists have filed complaints of online harassment. Around 13 women lodged complaints against threats received on social media. At least seven cases against defamation and another seven cases against hacking were filed.
When women journalists log into their accounts, they are met with constant harassment, abusive tweets and serious threats. This constant abuse and trolling often succeed at stopping women from expressing their opinions. While some journalists decide to take a break from social media, some become a victim of self-censorship. Section 24 of the Cyber Crime Act clearly allows victims to file complaints against the harassment they face online; the law identifies such abuse as an offence.
Many social media users who actively engage in launching attacks against women journalists appear to be part of political parties. In 2020, women blamed PTI-affiliated accounts for launching vicious campaigns against them and attacking them with abusive tweets. They counter-launched the trend, #AttacksWon’tSilenceUs, to record their protest.
In August 2020, when the PTI was in federal government, a group of these journalists met the then chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, and shared that supporters of the government regularly harass women journalists on social media. They strongly demanded all political parties to take action against such unbridled crimes. Around 150 women journalists signed the petition.
Benazir Shah, who was part of the delegation that met Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, says that all journalists produced evidence – screenshots of the tweets presented in print — in front of the commission. However, even after two years, there has not been any significant progress on the issue.
Chairperson of Human Rights Commission Rabia Javeri shares that when her organization wrote a letter to the Ministry of Human Rights and urged the department to do something about the rising online harassment cases, the organization shared that they never received the minutes of the meeting held to discuss these issues. She adds that “the government did not take the complaints filed by women journalists seriously.”
Asma Shirazi expresses her disappointment over government inaction and says, “Ideally, all political parties should have formed a parliamentary committee for the protection of all journalists against cyber crimes. But it is rather disappointing that they have turned a blind eye to this matter. From the Human Rights Commission to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, no institution paid any attention to the matter.” She also adds that a specific political party which uses social media to spread its narrative will never take this issue seriously.
In a country when investigation officers ask inappropriate questions and make snarky comments, where there is a shortage of women officers, where there is no proof of meetings attended by the journalists, and where adjournments is a norm, women can barely hope for ever finding justice. Women journalists have highlighted the abuse they face on a daily basis, countless times, but the institutions they have reached out to are as helpless as these women.