Women journalists demand protection from 'vicious' social media attacks by 'people linked to govt'

Published August 12, 2020
Concerns about the online space have been raised by 16 women journalists and analysts in a joint statement. — Creative Commons/File
Concerns about the online space have been raised by 16 women journalists and analysts in a joint statement. — Creative Commons/File

A group of well-known Pakistani female journalists and commentators have sought protection against what they termed "vicious attacks" directed at them through social media, allegedly by people linked to the ruling PTI government.

A joint statement, which has been signed so far by 16 female journalists belonging to various media outlets and mediums, stated that the attacks were making it "incredibly difficult" for them to carry out their professional duties.

"The target of these attacks are women with differing viewpoints and those whose reports have been critical of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government, and more specifically its handling of the coronavirus pandemic," the statement shared on Twitter said.

Mehmal Sarfraz, Benazir Shah, Asma Shirazi, Reema Omer and Munizae Jahangir are among the women journalists and analysts who have signed the document.

Special report: The mechanics of silencing online dissent

The statement said that the online attacks were instigated by government officials and then amplified by a large number of Twitter accounts, "which declare their affiliation to the ruling party".

According to the declaration, personal details of women journalists and analysts had been made public as part of a "well-defined and coordinated campaign" while in some cases, their pictures and videos had also been morphed.

In addition, they were referred to as peddlers of "fake news", "enemy of the people" and accused of taking bribes in order to discredit and intimidate the journalists, it said.

The statement said the persons involved in the campaign also targeted the journalists for their gender, posting gender-based slurs and threats of sexual and physical violence on their social media timelines.

"Lately, there have also been attempts to hack into the social media accounts of reporters and analysts, as well as limit [their] access to information," it added, noting that women in the media were finding it "increasingly difficult" to remain on social media platforms and engage freely, while many were forced to self-censor.

"We are being prevented from exercising our right to free speech and participate in public discourse," the journalists said, stressing that when they self-censor, members of the public are prevented from receiving information to form their views.

According to the statement, the female journalists do not enjoy the protection of the law against the online attacks and threats "and this is the direct result of the actions of those who hold positions in government and are affiliated with the PTI".

It recalled that Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari had last July promised to take notice of the threats against journalists, but no progress had been made on the issue.

The statement demanded of the government to "immediately restrain its members from repeatedly targeting women in the media" and "send out a clear message to all party members [...] to desist from launching these attacks, whether directly or indirectly".

It also asked the government to "hold all such individuals within the government accountable and take action against them".

Reacting to the statement, Mazari said it was "disturbing to learn of women journalists being targeted and abused".

"Journalists do their job and to target them, especially gender-based abusive attacks on women journos, is absolutely unacceptable and disgusting."

Mazari said she had again requested the information minister "to assist in fast-tracking our Journalist Protection Bill", which she said was not only an urgent need in Pakistan but an obligation under the Constitution and international law.

The journalists' statement also called upon the National Assembly and Senate standing committees on human rights to take notice of the threatening environment and "hold the government accountable".

Responding to this, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who chairs the NA human rights committee, tweeted: "Have taken notice of threats to women journalists as chair of human rights committee. Would like to invite you all to come brief our committee on the issue."

Meanwhile, MNA Mohsin Dawar while commenting on the journalists' statement said "responding to criticism with threats is the sign of fascism".

"All those who believe in freedom of speech should put aside their differences and unite to condemn these fascist tactics," he tweeted, saying he strongly supported the demands made in the statement.

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