Attacks Won’t Silence Us

Starting from ‘you’re a bitch’ to ‘you deserve to be killed because you’re against the state’. This is one extreme to another. Everything that goes in between, you can imagine.

Umaima Ahmed works for The News on Sunday said this in December 2018. Many journalists in Pakistan face online harassment and in the case of women, the abuse they get is often sexual in nature.

A survey in 2018, among Pakistani journalists by the Digital Rights Foundation, showed that 66 percent of respondents had experienced ‘digital insecurity’. This includes, but is not limited to, being hacked, threatened, blackmailed and being harassed over a sustained period of time. Many women whochallenge the status quo face extraordinary backlash and abuse. There is self-censorship not only because of the abuse they face online, but also because there is real fear of that becoming offline abuse. When it comes to women journalists, it’s very sexual in nature. People abuse them not based on their content but based on how they look and their body. They body shame them. Such online abuse threatens media diversity in a country where women already make up a small fraction of journalists. Women are coming out of their comfort zones and out of their homes. The more they are reclaiming spaces, the more they are facing challenges, said Nighat Dad

Nothing has changed I am afraid since then, on August 12, a joint statement signed by some 50 women journalistscondemning a “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of harassment on social media, including abusive language and threats of violence, vicious attacks through social media are being directed at women journalists and commentators in Pakistan, making it incredibly difficult for us to carry out our professional duties. The statement further outlined the systematic abuse the female journalists are subjected to beinstigated by government officials and then amplified by a large number of Twitter accounts, mainly declaring their affiliation to the ruling party. In what is certainly a well-defined and coordinated campaign, personal details of women journalists and analysts have been made public. To further discredit, frighten and intimidate us, we are referred to as paddlers of “fake news”, “enemy of the people” and accused of taking bribes. Critical posts are drowned under sexual slurs and baseless allegations. There have also been multiple reports of pictures and other personal information of female journalists being accessed and spread online, endangering their safety. The group of journalists also retreated that they are being prevented from exercising their right to free speech and participate in public discourse

The statement demanded the government to immediately restrain its members from targeting women in the media. Asking Prime Minister, Imran Khan should send out a clear message to all party members, supporters and followers, to desist from launching these attacks, whether directly or indirectly. The government should hold all such individuals within the government accountable and take action against them.

In response to the joint statement, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Pakistani authorities to ensure that the online threats and hate messages are stopped. We regard the highest levels of the Pakistani government as either responsible or complicit in these recent cyber harassment campaigns against certain women journalists who don’t toe the official line, said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

Benazir Shah said the social media harassment usually follows a very specific pattern. First government officials target you, calling your tweet ‘fake news’ or accusing you of being an ‘enemy of the people’ or a ‘lifafa’ journalist.

As expected, trolls responded back with filthiest language to the female journalists. Special Assistant to the prime minister on political communication, Dr Shahbaz Gill responded on social media earlier today accusing Benazir Shah and Mehmil Sarfaraz of being a supporter of PPP and PMLN, who are specifically trying to link only PTI with harassment. 

Not long ago, an alleged audio call of Member Provincial Assembly of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf Uzma Kardar wasleaked on social media, wherein the she was heard saying that First Lady Bushra Bibi has restricted the movement of PTI leaders in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s residence. There’s a line in the house which nobody can cross. She controls everything in the house. She also said that establishment isplaying a very prominent role and has controlled the media. There is a clear message that establishment and government are on one page. It is good because no government can survive without the support of establishment in Pakistan.

On June 15, Special Assistant to the PM for Overseas Pakistanis and Human Rights Development Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari criticized Uzma Kardar on twitter for her disrespectful remarks about the First Lady. The PTI MPA could be heard saying indecent things about Bushra Bibi in the audio. One can’t expect her to understand the calibre of First Lady but it is extremely shameful of Uzma Kardar to be talking behind her back, prime minister and First Lady’s respect comes foremost for all of us. Embarrassing behaviour from anyone who claims to be associated with the party.

Ultimately Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan removed treasury MPA Uzma Kardar from his ministry’s media strategy committee and the slot of the Punjab government’s spokesperson. If an MPA of sitting government can be removed within a week of a leaked audio, why prime minister’s office cannot issue a statement in favour of the women journalists?

I sincerely expect Prime Minister Imran Khan to take immediate notice of this dirty campaign on social media and instruct his advisors to abstain from attacking female journalists instead. It is in the interest of whatever democracy is left in the country not to silence the voices with force and online harassment. 

Let me repeat it again with that attacks cannot silence women journalists.

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