THE PTI government’s hostility towards the media and its intolerance for dissent is well known. The target of their ire this time is seasoned anchorperson Asma Shirazi for her column on BBC Urdu last week in which she wrote about Pakistan’s floundering economy, concluding with the lines that no amount of superstitious rituals could rescue it. Several cabinet members pounced on Ms Shirazi and fired off tweets casting aspersions on her character and journalistic integrity and, of course, questioning her patriotism. Shamefully enough, even the PTI’s official Twitter account did not desist from adding to the vitriol. These actions predictably coalesced in a tsunami of trolling from PTI supporters that went on for several days using vile hashtags. To add fuel to the fire, Special Assistant to the PM on Political Communication Shahbaz Gill held a press conference on Thursday where he lambasted Ms Shirazi for her article, accusing her of having crossed all “ethical limits”. In fact, it was Mr Gill’s tirade that, by deliberately distorting the meaning of the journalist’s words in order to impute false motives to her, breached every norm of decency.

When the ruling party and government ministers themselves become part of a verbal lynch mob against a journalist for their views, it is particularly condemnable. When they single out female journalists, it is all the more malicious, because in a misogynistic society like Pakistan, such campaigns take on a darker edge. The women’s public profile and active social media presence put them at heightened risk of online abuse which in their case, unlike their male counterparts, is almost invariably of a deeply personal and sexualised nature. Such attacks can have a profound psychological impact on those at the receiving end. A 2019 study found that cyber harassment affects the work of 95pc of female journalists. Last year, a group of prominent women journalists put their names to a statement with the defiant hashtag #AttacksWontSilenceUs, in which they decried the torrent of abuse directed at them on social media, sometimes by cabinet ministers, whenever they voiced opinions critical of the PTI government. They demanded that the ruling party “immediately restrain its members from repeatedly targeting women in the media”.

Nothing of the sort has been done. Instead, as in the present instance, the government has often continued to act as an enabler of vicious campaigns that put women journalists directly at risk of harm. And it does so while making claims with a straight face about how the media in Pakistan is free and independent. The PTI that once used to boast about how its female supporters felt safe taking part in its four-month dharna in 2014 appears to have no qualms in turning its guns on women journalists. Evidently, the only women whose safety matters to the party are those that blindly support its policies.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2021

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