Online harassment

22 Oct 2020

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The writer is associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The writer is associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

IN 2016, Pakistan’s parliament passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), a set of laws which supporters contended would restrict online extremist content, prosecute hate speech, and curb harassment of women on the internet. Four years on, has the law made the internet safer for women in Pakistan?

Female journalists don’t think it has. On Aug 12, a group of noted women journalists issued a statement condemning a “well-defined and coordinated campaign” of online harassment against colleagues, including threats of violence. The human rights minister, Shireen Mazari said she found the statement’s details “disturbing”.

Some journalists said that previously when they had reported crimes under Peca, their complaints were ignored. Even worse, the law’s defamation provisions have been misused to harass women. They made it clear they did not want to turn to a law that abused human rights.

The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) implements Peca, and its cybercrime wing investigates complaints, especially from women. But in a country of 34 million internet users, the cybercrime wing has a team of only 500 individuals (400 of whom were added this year). One news report said that until 2018 there were only two women staffing the cybercrime help desk.

Pakistan needs to protect women on the internet.

The agency does not have the resources to battle the daily scourge of gendered online harassment. Digital rights activist Shmyla Khan said that if every woman who faced online harassment reported to the cybercrime wing, “the institution would break”.

Men dominate the FIA, and their track record shows they don’t grasp the nuances of gendered harassment and they pursue cases arbitrarily. In 2017, Digital Rights Foundation submitted a complaint about a Facebook account that repeatedly made derogatory memes about Nighat Dad, DRF’s founder. When asked for updates on the investigation, the agency said: “A public figure such as yourself must get these threats regularly, no?”

Similarly, Gharida Farooqi, a journalist behind the joint statement, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that one reason she faced online harassment was because a politician falsely accused her of having an affair with a minister in 2016. Farooqi said she lodged a complaint against the politician with the agency, but the investigation went nowhere. So, if investigating and curbing online harassment against women is not a priority for the FIA’s cybercrime wing, then what is?

In September, the FIA charged nine people under Peca’s Section 20, which makes it a criminal offence to transmit defamatory information. Human rights organisations are concerned by this provision because it duplicates existing law on defamation in the Penal Code, does not outline clear procedures, and provides the agency with broad discretionary powers over content decisions.

The agency charged female witnesses in a sexual harassment case against the man who lodged the criminal defamation case. Several feminist groups condemned the agency’s action: “Feminist groups across the country are appalled at the blatant weaponisation of the criminal defamation laws in Pakistan to silence victims and survivors of sexual assault and harassment.”

Moreover, the law requires the FIA to submit biannual reports to parliament; but in four years it has submitted only one. The numbers the agency shared are grim: it registered 8,500 complaints of women facing online harassment in 2018 and 2019. Agency officials told a parliamentary committee that blackmailing and harassment over social media were the most common complaints and that only 19.5 per cent of the complaints were investigated.

To say that these numbers are the tip of the iceberg would be an understatement. Mobility res­­­­­trictions and fear of their family’s reactions deter women from submitting formalised complaints since the agency requires women to go to an office, submit their CNIC number, phone number and father’s name.

Before Peca was passed, Human Rights Watch in a joint statement in 2015 expressing concern that the law would violate Pakistan’s human rights commitments. Peca’s provisions include allowing the government to censor online content and to criminalise internet user activity under extremely broad criteria. Human Rights Watch said that this “bill constitutes a clear and present danger to human rights on the pretext of addressing legitimate fears about cybercrime”.

These concerns have been borne out. The government needs to get serious about curbing gendered online harassment of women and overhaul Peca’s abusive provisions and the power structure that controls the investigative agency.

The agency needs to be held accountable for being dismissive about complaints brought by women. It needs to add gender-sensitised men and women to their help desk, helpline and investigation teams; and report to parliament as the law requires.

The writer is associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2020