Journalists in Pakistan push to end abuse of women in media

Indifference to targeted attacks on women journalists have prompted a petition order asking Pakistan’s government to act

The odds are stacked against women working in Pakistan’s troubled journalism landscape. They barely constitute five per cent of the country’s body of 20,000 working journalists, according to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. On average they get lower wages than men and hold far fewer positions of authority in the media sector. In what is an overtly patriarchal and conservative society and a misogynist milieu, they strive twice as hard to reach merely half-way compared to their male colleagues within the media sphere.

Now they are in further trouble: organised abusive trolling by supporters of the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party of Prime Minister Imran Khan, himself known for his own misogynistic gaffes. In September 2020, the women journalists had had enough. Over a dozen of well-known women journalists issued a joint public statement detailing gross online abuse of a sexualized nature, including rape threats, often discernibly from ruling party supporters angry at their party being held accountable for its spectacularly poor governance record, a tanking economy and witch-hunt of the opposition parties.

The women also cited specific examples of consistent and persistent online intimidation, harassment and use of crass language, demanding that the ruling party rein in its mostly youthful supporters, extending their self-accorded male privileges against women. While several government representatives denied there was any organised harassment of women journalists and bloggers, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari issued a statement of solidarity and promised action against the worst offenders.

Weeks after no action was forthcoming and there being little difference in targeted attacks and slurs, the group of affected women journalists – whose ranks have now swelled to nearly 150 signatories – petitioned the Islamabad High Court to order the government into addressing their grievances. They are seeking official guarantees for their safety and protection against abuse and a directive to the ruling party to restrain their supporters from abuse and trolling, that they say is affecting their physical, digital and psychological well-being.  

This show of solidarity is unprecedented and has garnered wide support from other parts of the media industry, civil society, rights defenders’ and the legal community as well as Parliament. It represents a key and potentially transformational moment in Pakistani media’s evolution of standing for its rights in a country that has historically treated media spectacularly badly.

According to Freedom Network, a national watchdog on media rights – and a partner of IMS, over 140 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2000. In those two decades not one of those killings have seen a guilty conviction in the courts system. Freedom Network also informs that between the fall of 2019 and 2020 two women journalists have been killed for pursuing journalism careers – a first in the country’s history. Seen in link with the surge in harassment of women journalists online, these murders signal a spike in the threat matrix for women in media.

The harassment of not just women journalists but also women civic and digital activists of Pakistan is an unfortunate constant pattern, as evinced in a 2019 study conducted by IMS partner Digital Rights Foundation (DRF). Findings showed regular online harassment of women, with abuse being gendered and often aimed at Pakistani women on social media. A majority of the respondents in the study expressed distrust in government departments charged with helping them.

What can be done to make women journalists safer and safeguard their rightful spaces online to exercise their freedom of expression? According to media rights groups and civil society practitioners, overt regulation of online spaces criminalizing dissent and criticism of government often makes women an easier target of abuse. Many also support demands for a law on safety of journalists and other information practitioners that would allow women to defend themselves legally. Capacity-building of women on digital safety can also make a difference.

Adnan Rehmat is a consultant for IMS in Pakistan