Govt urged to address online harassment of female journalists, activists


Pakistani women who use cyberspace for activism and to express their opinions often fall victim of online harassment. Female journalists in particular receive backlash in the form of threats and abuse when they write on a sensitive topic.

In some conservative and backward areas of Pakistan, it is considered unacceptable for a woman to have online presence as internet is seen as a place where people only practice immorality. This is why a number of Pakistani women choose to remain anonymous on social media so their parents and family members do not find out about them using the internet. They often use fake usernames and put up pictures of flowers and natural scenes as their profile photos.

In the conservative Muslim society, what happens on the internet does not always stay there, but it also affects the real life of the victim. If a woman’s picture is photoshopped in a way that is deemed offensive, the blame will always be hers and she will be perceived as someone having a ‘bad’ character.

Being a female journalist in Pakistan is no walk in the park – the women not only get online abuse but also face professional jealousy within their own organisation as male colleagues try to bring them down and dominate the space.

To discuss this and other related issues, Pakistan Press Foundation held a one-day training workshop on online harassment for female journalists in Karachi last week. Internet activist and Digital Rights Foundation’s Executive Director Nighat Dad led the training and taught the journalists about digital safety.

In the beginning of the workshop, the participants shared with each other the experience of working as journalists in Pakistan’s male-dominated society. Some complained of real-life harassment by their bosses and colleagues and others told how they were victims of online abuse. Every woman had a story of harassment to tell, and they were more or less the same.

Nighat Dad in her address said that internet activism and social media is not taken seriously by some senior journalists. “They say internet activism is not journalism as it does not have any editorial control, but the fact is that social media, mobile and internet have helped and enabled journalism in Pakistan by widening the audience”, she said.

Describing the power of social media, Nighat said that sometimes Twitter breaks news before mainstream media, and added that social media has helped bring journalism of offline space to the online space thus catering to a larger audience.

Nighat told the participants that according to the current data, 19 per cent of Pakistan’s population uses internet while 70 per cent have access to mobile phones. But there is no data on how many women have access to mobile and internet since governments have never focused on obtaining sex-disaggregated statistics. Women journalists and activists often receive death and rape threats on social media by anonymous accounts and they usually have no idea what to do about it as there are no laws on cyber stalking in Pakistan. Women who have an opinion and use the medium of internet to express it do not feel safe online because of the absence of adequate laws.

Nighat Dad said that male journalists also get abuse and threats on social media, but the risk is greater for female journalists, as their private information is often misused to defame them online. First, there is no clear definition of online harassment. No one knows if stalking and abusing online is also a form of harassment, she said.

The government claims to have addressed the issue through the much-discussed ‘Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill’ which has recently been approved by both the houses of the parliament, despite strong protest from civil society. The participants discussed in detail the content of the bill and rejected government’s claims that it protects online privacy. They were of the view that the bill is draconian and counterproductive. It does not in any way ensure that cyber stalking is eradicated but has instead put restrictions on the users of internet. The law is only meant to curb free speech and put an end to criticism of the government online, the journalists said.

At the end of the workshop, all the participants came up with recommendations to prevent women from harassment online and offline. The implementation of Protection from Harassment at Workplace Act was demanded and the journalists called on the government to make arrangements for education of digital safety in colleges and universities so women can be trained on how to be safe online.