Illustration by Reem Khurshid
Illustration by Reem Khurshid

“SOMETIMES I think they just wanted to scare me, but then I think maybe they wanted me dead,” says Bisma*, a journalist well known for her progressive views. It was one evening in February 2019 when several shots were fired right outside her house. She has never spoken about the incident to anyone except her immediate family, her boss and the head of the media company she works for — all of whom believe it was due to her reporting.

It had been a year since Bisma had done a particular story and started getting threatening calls telling her to “watch out”, the tone in each subsequent call turning more aggressive. “I never thought they would show up at my doorstep,” she says. Fearing further repercussions, she kept quiet, and has since then drastically cut down her social media presence. “The message was pretty clear.”

Such ‘messages’ have become increasingly common, and even more deadly. Over the years, Pakistan has earned a reputation of being a hard country for journalists. At least 61 reporters — all men — have been killed in the line of duty since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It ranked 145th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2020. While attacks on media men make it into the news and are discussed in appropriate forums, the nature of such attacks on women journalists, amplified by the ingrained misogyny of a patriarchal social structure, is very different.

A survey on online violence against women journalists by the International Centre for Journalists and Unesco notes that “online violence targeting women journalists manifests itself in a variety of ways, but it has a number of common characteristics. It is networked, it radiates and it is intimate: In detail and delivery, the threats are personal. They arrive on mobile phone screens first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and they are often highly sexualised.”

Women journalists in Pakistan work in a hostile environment; only the fittest can survive

Elsewhere, the report states: “There are three converging online threats currently confronting women journalists — misogynistic harassment and abuse, orchestrated disinformation campaigns that exploit misogynistic narratives and digital privacy and security threats that increase physical risks associated with online violence.”

Most women journalists Dawn reached out to say reporting is the easiest part. Far more difficult is the continuous battle to create and hold onto spaces within male-dominated newsrooms and public places while fighting misinformation, deeply personal attacks and misogyny — both offline and online — which is overwhelming some of the most courageous and dedicated women journalists in Pakistan.

On Aug 12 last year, a group of women journalists issued a statement against government-affiliated social media accounts and supporters. “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 said, adding: “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 peddlers of ‘fake news’, ‘enemy of the people’ and accused of taking bribes (often termed as ‘paid’ journalists or lifafas).”

The statement led to another round of virulent online abuse and harassment that was enough to make most women journalists — many of whom had not signed the petition fearing a backlash — worry that these threats could translate into real attacks.

On Sep 9, nearly 150 women journalists signed a public petition to endorse “what our fellow colleagues have put on record on 12/08/2020, and widen the scope to reflect the magnitude and degree of trauma being experienced by women in media.

“A journalist’s criticism of any given policy of PTI or of political parties including PML-N, PPP, religious parties and accounts affiliating themselves with state institutions may also unleash a barrage of abuse.”

The petition noted that political parties and their supporters who indulged in “vile and vicious attacks online” were “impacting their work, mental wellbeing and security”.

“If there was a World Cup for getting trolled, I would have won it,” quips Asma Shirazi, a signatory to the petition. “The way a virus spreads, this nasty abuse has multiplied the same way. What has happened in the last three years has been unprecedented. Zuban band ho jaye kisi tareeqay sey [our mouths should be gagged somehow].”

Host of a flagship political talk show on Aaj News and one of the country’s top rated anchors, Shirazi left PTV to join Geo TV in 2002 when there were hardly any women doing political reporting. “In 2007, during Musharraf’s rule, I was banned from TV along with some others. Back then, we would get threats, someone would follow us or a message would be delivered via messengers, but all records were smashed after 2011 when social media especially Twitter became big.”

Shirazi shares incidents of fake news and propaganda against her which not only hurt her credibility but also caused her immense mental stress. “There is an extensive campaign to discredit pro-democracy voices. I decided intentionally to let my voice be heard and push back,” she says. “I have been a victim of fake news so often, I have gotten used to it. My private pictures are often doctored and leaked. I can’t fight with the forces [behind these attacks], all I can do is stand with the ideology I believe in.”

This is the first of several forthcoming cross-border collaborations with stories from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, a 2020 report based on a global survey by the International Women’s Media Foundation and coauthored by Troll Busters, found that out of the 597 respondents, a majority had been threatened, harassed or physically attacked as a result of the work they do in the journalism or media field.

“Sixty-three per cent indicated they had been threatened or harassed online, 58pc indicated they had been threatened or harassed in person while 26pc indicated they had been physically attacked,” the report says. “One in 10 respondents has experienced a death threat in the past year.”

“For women in Pakistan, there is no safe space,” contends Gharidah Farooqi, a popular current affairs talk show host on NewsOne, who says she was the first female journalist in Pakistan to file a complaint of cybercrime with the FIA. Abuses hurled her way include allegations of extra marital affairs with political figures. “During the 2014 dharna, accounts associated with PTI ran a campaign against me and I was also physically attacked while reporting on the sit-in,” she says.

Following the deadly attack on two Christchurch mosques in New Zealand, there were reports that the killer had earlier travelled to Pakistan. When Farooqi tweeted a CNN story about this, a storm of abuse rained down on her, calling her traitor and demanding she be tried for treason. In that case too, she alleges, an PTI supporter led the charge. Once again, she went to the FIA. However, by this time the online harassment was no longer confined to Twitter and Facebook. “I did not step outside the house for three months,” she recalls.

Many women journalists tell Dawn that whenever they write a political story or even tweet an opinion deemed unfavourable to the PTI or the other parties, the security establishment or corporate sector, they are mercilessly trolled. The backlash, which ranges from threatening phone calls to doxxing and, in the case of political trolling, was amplified if verified party accounts jumped in.

Ailia Zehra, a Lahore-based journalist and the managing editor of Naya Daur, a web-based news portal, agrees that the likelihood of online physical and sexual threats translating into real-time events is very high for female reporters. Fortunately, unlike Shirazi and Farooqui, Zehra is not a household name or an easily recognisable face, except by one of her 20,000 online followers. But that has not made her feel any safer.

“When the Saudi crown prince was visiting, I wrote a report on censorship by news organisations [on the subject of Khashoggi’s murder],” says Zehra. “The next day I got a call from an untraceable number, asking how I could write something like this. He said in a threatening tone, ‘Our guest is visiting and this isn’t journalism, it’s yellow journalism’.”

The list of obscenities hurled her way, she maintains, is getting longer and longer. Sometimes, after tweeting something, she has to go offline for 48 hours until the verbal assault dies down. Restricting her Twitter notifications is another tactic, but that leaves her unable to get tips and feedback from readers.

Following a vlog she did on Ishaq Dar’s BBC interview in December 2020, Zehra says she was mercilessly trolled by the PTI’s official account. “They took out a portion of that video and edited it, making me sound like I was drunk. The result of all this is that we are now very careful at Naya Daur. Self-censorship has increased given that the number of red lines has multiplied.”

Hostile newsrooms

Many women reporters also describe the environment of the newsrooms as hostile; male journalists can be their female colleagues’ worst enemies.

Pakistan’s first female chief reporter and Karachi bureau chief Rafia Haider would certainly agree. With a career spanning 30 years at the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), the state-run news agency, she has reported extensively on health, environment and human rights.

Many women journalists say that whenever they write a political story or even tweet an opinion deemed unfavourable to the political parties, the security establishment or the corporate sector, they are mercilessly trolled. The backlash ranges from threatening phone calls to doxxing.

A mild-mannered single woman, she also faces sexist and ageist remarks — most of all, unfortunately, from the men in her newsroom. Her male colleagues are not keen on taking directions from a woman chief reporter. “It has gone from bad to worse since I was made bureau chief again in 2020 [she was country’s and APP’s first female bureau chief a decade ago],” she contends. Haider has been repeatedly subjected to online and offline vilification campaigns. “Laughably enough, my colleagues recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan, implying that I am a coronavirus-denier and am forcing them to work in a pandemic when all I was doing was following orders from the head office,” says Haider. A year away from retirement, she shares that these days she often contemplates quitting.

Similarly, Multan-based Rakshsanda Nayyer, a reporter with over two decades of experience at Nawai Waqt newspaper, accuses her colleagues of making it impossible for her to work.”

One day she filed a story on challenges faced by female lawyers in her hometown, which ended up on the front page of Nawai Waqt Multan as well as in all other editions. “When I went to work, the beat reporter was furious and threatened to break my legs. ‘I will burn you, I will burn this face of yours that you go around with’ were his words,” she remembers. It took an intervention from several media colleagues to get the man to back off. “But the resident editor actually asked me why I was interfering with his beat.”

This ‘boys’ club’ mentality means that male journalists often do not support their female colleagues, thereby leaving them feeling victimised twice over. “Once I was doing a story on maternal health and talking to a pregnant woman in her home when her husband flashed me,” says a Quetta-based reporter. “His wife pretended like nothing had happened. As I tried to leave, he made inappropriate gestures. Next day, a male reporter who was related to the family I had visited said I should behave respectably and not entice men.”

For female television reporters, stepping into the public domain also means facing crowds of leering men. “Someone will try to touch your back or bottom, grope you or scream loudly in your ear,” says Naheed*, a young TV journalist. “The worst are the cameramen who try to take advantage of new girls by offering to adjust their collar mic”. She remembers once pushing away a senior cameraman at a shoot when he tried to touch her neck, ostensibly while adjusting the mic. Similar experiences were narrated by other women reporters, who said complaining meant being labeled ‘difficult’ and losing out on choice assignments.

Iffat Hasan Rizvi is a Supreme Court reporter well known in the Urdu media for her sharp political analysis. She has been a frequent target of online trolling, even for some innocuous comments. Unfortunately, even at the workplace, respect for women journalists is scant. For instance, she says, no matter how smart a woman is, she is expected to report on “mausam ka haal” (the weather).

As for unwelcome male advances, even the halls of justice offer little refuge. “A lawyer representing the government in the SC once grabbed my hand while handing me a document. I was stunned and disgusted. When I shared this with the male reporters, they took it very lightly and said ‘yeh sab tharki hotay hain’ and suggested that the next time I take a man along.”

No support

The ‘Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010’ stipulates that every organisation must adopt the Code of Conduct prescribed by the law and ensure it is displayed noticeably in languages understood by the majority of employees. Failure to do so is punishable by a Rs100,000 fine. In practice, many media houses are reluctant to display to comply with these directions.

Talking to Dawn, Provincial Ombudsman Sindh for Protection Against Harassment at Workplace retired Justice Shahnawaz Tariq says: “Journalists, including women reporters, like many others working in the private sector, do not enjoy legal protections from being easily terminated that are available to those working in public sector if they file a complaint against harassment at the workplace. The fear of losing employment and possibly killing one’s career prospects acts as a deterrent which discourages women from coming forward.” Consider that over the years, 461 cases overall have been filed under the Harassment Act, 2010 with the provincial ombudsman, with 350 disposed. In all that time, only one case involving a media company and a female radio host has been lodged with the provincial ombudsman. The case was decided in her favour and the accused convicted.

No response was received from the office of the Federal Ombudsperson for Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Kashmala Tariq for this report.

Journalists in Pakistan as a whole are going through difficult times. Let alone the wholesale assault on freedom of speech by the authorities, salaries have been drastically cut and massive retrenchments have taken place in media organisations. For many women in this cohort, however, the situation is even more fraught with the trolling they face on a daily basis and the lack of support from male colleagues, who are in fact often part of the problem.

On Aug 12, 2020, in response to the statement issued by the women journalists about the vile online attacks on them, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari tweeted: “Disturbing to learn of women journalists being targeted and abused. Abusing women bec[ause] they are critical is never acceptable. Journalists do their job & to target them, especially gender-based abusive attacks on women journos, is absolutely unacceptable and disgusting.”

However, little has happened since then to show that this government is committed to improving the environment for women journalists in public and online spaces. Repeated attempts to contact Ms Mazari for comments on the subject did not receive any response.

For women in Pakistani media, most days are like climbing a personal Everest, navigating harsh terrain and bottlenecks, where the slightest misstep can put paid to one’s job, reputation and sanity. Their experiences of offline and online abuse are dismissed as ‘occupational hazards’. That is unacceptable. Pakistani social media is a disturbing reflection of a troubled society averse to differing opinions and obsessed with harming women in ways unimaginable — a glance through the Whatsapp messages and timelines of women journalists is proof enough.

They need assurance from their employers as well as from the state that when they share their fears and experiences of being doxxed, trolled, surveilled or physically attacked, they are not dismissed as being paranoid and asked to ‘toughen up’. Instead, their tormentors must be brought to book.

**Some names have been changed for the sake of privacy.*

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2021

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