Prominent Pakistani journalist Gharidah Farooqi (left) sits with Tanzeela Mazhar and other reporters at a hearing on online abuse against female journalists at the Human Rights Committee of Pakistan's National Assembly on August 18, 2020. (Gharidah Farooqi)

As ruling party fans spew online abuse, Pakistan’s female journalists call for government action

On August 16, Ramsha Jahangir should have been celebrating a journalistic triumph, the release of a long, deeply reported cover story for the weekend magazine of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper on the government’s social media strategy and image-building. Instead, she spent the day watching in horror as a torrent of abuse filled her social media feeds. Eventually, she went offline. 

“I was scared of promoting my own work because of this barrage of accounts tagging me constantly, these relentless notifications accusing me of spreading fake news, accusing me of taking bribes from opposition parties, accusing me of being biased,” she told CPJ via phone. “So I stopped sharing my story, because it wasn’t worth it.” 

In Pakistan, female journalists say they are increasingly targeted online, sometimes in gross sexualized attacks, including rape threats. In a country where many journalists face intimidation and violence against women is on the rise – including against female reporters – women say these social media attacks have dire offline consequences. From shying away from sharing their work, to being forced out of jobs, to declining to pursue stories, they say they feel prevented from fully participating in the profession. And now they are asking the government to act – not in the form of new legislation – but to embrace the norms of press freedom and stop attacking the character and integrity of journalists whose reporting they don’t like. 

“It takes a mental toll,” Mehmal Sarfraz, co-founder of news site The Current and a leader in efforts to bring the issue to the government, told CPJ via phone. “What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to leave the media? These tweets discourage women from joining the media.”  

It almost looked like a breakthrough on August 18 when roughly two dozen women journalists told their stories of grotesque online harassment, unedited and mostly uninterrupted, for four hours to the Human Rights Committee of Pakistan’s National Assembly. The hearing was the first result of a rare and public show of solidarity of women journalists, who issued a joint letter on August 12 asking for government action to stop the harassment.  

“Disturbing to learn of women journalists being targeted and abused,” was the immediate reaction to the letter by Shireen Mazari, Human Rights Minister from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, on Twitter, who also attended part of the hearing. Even so, her support for the women was undercut on the Tweet thread, where she also wrote that she found it “equally disgusting & unacceptable for women journalists to ridicule politicians’ spouses & family mbrs.” It’s unclear to what Mazari was referring. Reached by CPJ via messaging app, Mazari initially said an interview would be possible, but did not respond to repeated phone calls or messages.   

The journalists say that party members and supporters from all political parties engage in this kind of trolling. But they want the ruling PTI party, which pioneered the use of social media in politics in Pakistan, to take a leadership role and stop singling out women journalists for ad hominem attacks. When leaders have gone after female journalists online, the reporters say, legions of PTI followers jump on board with vile, sometimes graphic, sexualized attacks and rape threats.

“It’s kind of like dog whistling,” says Benazir Shah, who has recently reported on COVID-19 for Geo News and Arab News. “Government officials first accuse you of fake news or of taking bribes. And in the second phase, all these anonymous accounts pop up and abuse you.” She said she recently shut down her Twitter account after a health official with the PTI party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa singled her out on the site for tweeting about poor health conditions in the area, and the official’s followers viciously piled on. 

CPJ’s email to the health official went unanswered. 

Some say online attacks have increased since the hearing. “I can’t tell if they are sponsored by PTI,” Sadaf Khan, a journalist and cofounder of the media development non-profit Media Matters for Democracy, told CPJ via phone. “What makes the PTI connection apparent is the fact that most of these accounts have pictures of [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan or the PTI symbol.” 

In late August, Shahbaz Gill, special assistant to the prime minister on political communication, launched a series of taunting Twitter attacks questioning the integrity of Sarfraz and Shah, the two journalists at the center of the campaign. The result was an onslaught of online abuse from PTI supporters, said Sarfraz. Several of the journalists expressed frustration that when PTI officials condemn attacks on women, they immediately also complain that journalists peddle “fake news.”

Gill did not respond to CPJ’s email request for comment. 

Women make up only a small minority of the media workforce in Pakistan, which remains a largely conservative and patriarchal society, and they have told CPJ about discrimination and sexism in the workplace. The online attacks, they say, further undermine their ability to thrive in a tough profession. A survey of women journalists last year by Media Matters for Democracy found that the fear of online violence impacts the way women do their jobs; 30 percent have declined a journalistic assignment over such concerns, while 60 percent have refrained from sharing their work online. 

“I would be wary of writing on the PTI in the near future, and even if I do, the next time I’ll be very, very careful and there will be a lot of self-censorship,” said Jahangir, whose article on the government’s social media strategy was met with online vitriol. “I’ll be low profile and won’t promote it as much.” 

Gharidah Farooqi, a prominent journalist and TV anchor, told CPJ via phone that she has been the target of online attacks since 2016, when she was a reporter at the television station Express News. She said the harassment began when a politician publicly accused her of having an affair with a government minister, a claim she denies. After that, she said her employer began to view her as a problem, claiming that political operatives from opposing parties had called the station to complain of bias in her coverage. She told CPJ she was eventually let go.

CPJ wrote to a social media account for Express News for comment via messaging app but did not receive a response. 

“I could not land myself at any other TV channels because most of the leading channels were advised not to hire me,” she said, adding that it took her a year and a half to find a steady job. 

Farooqi said she lodged a complaint with the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against the politician who accused her of the affair but the investigation went nowhere. The FIA did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment via email. 

Today, Farooqi is an anchor at News One, another television station, and she says the online harassment continues, though on a different topic. In recent months, she has frequently reported COVID-19 figures higher than official government numbers, she told CPJ. She then spends several days fielding vicious accusations of “fake news” on Twitter, until the government revises the official figures.

The female journalists’ joint letter eventually drew 165 signatories, including a few organizations. “It was like a little ‘Me Too’ campaign about women in media, everyone is telling a story,” Asma Shirazi, a talk show host on Aaj TV, told CPJ via phone. She said she worried that the women may even face more discrimination for speaking out. “I told the committee: ‘Please don’t force us to be on the female compartment of the train.’”

What’s next? While journalists say they welcome enforcement under the existing cybercrime law — The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 — when appropriate, they do not want new legislation that could further restrict already highly censored news or social media. Opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who chairs the PNA’s Human Rights Committee, told CPJ via phone that he was struck by the women’s testimony, calling it an “eye opener.” “None of the members of the committee really understood the gravity of the situation until we heard from the women themselves,” he said. He said he plans to call officials from the Information Ministry and ISPR, the military public relations arm, to testify about their own social media operations. He also plans to refer specific attacks on women to the FIA for investigation. 

The journalists are skeptical that these efforts will lead to any immediate improvement. “Nothing will change,” said Shirazi. “But even then we have to make noise. We have to scream.”