October 23, 2019

Sindhi media: Mapping digitisation and threats to female journalists

When Veengas, a vocal Sindhi journalist, started vociferously highlighting the issue of forced conversion of Hindu girls in Sindh, she was told “you are next [to be abducted].” She treated it as a routine threat and continues to bring various issues from Sindh to the forefront which the traditional Urdu and English media fail to report.

One of the cases she posted regular updates about was the alleged forced conversions of two Hindu sisters, Raveena and Reena, to Islam. The news of their abduction and forced conversion came on March 20 from Ghotki, Sindh. The sisters’ father and brother claimed, in a video widely shared on social media, that Reena and Raveena were forced to convert to Islam.

After a lot of uproar from minority-rights advocates against the incident, the sisters approached the Islamabad High Court (IHC) claiming they had converted and married to Muslim men willingly, seeking protection from their families.

Veengas says she has received serious threats both online and offline, although, however serious, they don’t scare her.

This was one of the many cases of forced marriages highlighted on social media. Many Sindhi citizens and bloggers took to Twitter to speak about similar cases, lamenting that no concrete action has been taken to solve the issue despite many reports being registered.

Veengas, who has a decade of experience in Sindhi media and as a freelancer for international publications, says the threats to her were made by people who are involved in these forced conversions. “This is our job,” she said when asked how she continues to work in the face of dire threats not only from religious fundamentalists but also from influential groups and individuals that be in Sindh.

Veengas has worked for eight years in Daily Ibrat, one of the few Sindhi dailies which also have a digital presence. While working there, she routinely reported on crime, corruption, social issues, and more importantly forced conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh. She says she especially became interested in covering the issue when the Rinkle Kumari forced conversion case surfaced in 2011—three years after she joined Daily Ibrat.

Social media hasn’t been able to challenge traditional powers [in Sindh]

Veengas

Veengas says she has received serious threats both online and offline, although, however serious, they don’t scare her. She continues to “quietly” report the abuse and has also upped digital security of her social media accounts after a couple of hacking attempts.

Internet penetration and the number of social media users have increased significantly in Pakistan in the past years. According to the May 2019 data by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), total broadband, 3G, 4G and landline internet users in Pakistan have increased to 70 million from 64 million in December 2018. The number of total cellular subscribers in Pakistan had reached 161 million by end-April 2019, 1.26% more than 159 million in the previous month, the report further said. However, rural parts of Sindh continue to lack proper internet infrastructure that provides fast network speed. This follows that the density of active social media users in these parts is lesser than urban cities in Pakistan.

This is one of the reasons a particular incident or an issue emanating from parts of Sindh outside of Karachi doesn’t generate as much attention online. Veengas agrees. She adds that while some issues did get traction on social media, it doesn’t necessarily follow action or even a complaint.

“Social media hasn’t been able to challenge traditional powers [in Sindh],” she says, although adding that there is hope that the little buzz will eventually turn into something major.

But we tend to have short-term memory [when it comes to issues] and don’t follow up. So what happens is culprits are thrown in jail for two days then [are] let out

Veengas

She gave the example of the “honour killing” of a 13-year-old girl in Khairpur by her male relative in February 2019. The news was widely reported in English and Urdu media and also on social media. According to Veengas, the police initially failed to apprehend the culprits and only did so when media widely reported it. The issue also gained traction when some social media users pointed out, correctly, that the suspect was a relative of Manzoor Wassan, a senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party that rules the province.

“But we tend to have short-term memory [when it comes to issues] and don’t follow up. So what happens is culprits are thrown in jail for two days then [are] let out,” she says.

An incident on social media made her realise how important or destructive this tool can be in Sindh. She narrated how she once tweeted news about two Hindu sisters being released by their abductors who intended to convert and marry them. 

“I felt something [was] wrong; so I thought I should verify the news.” On probing the matter, she found out that only one girl has been released and talks for the other were underway. But someone made a picture of the girls and sent it with the news that both are released. When the abductors found out this news is making rounds, they refused to release the second girl. Veengas says now she always verifies news before tweeting them.

People don’t need to resort to social media because the Sindhi media reports even on topics considered controversial or dangerous

Veengas

Citizen journalism has taken a centre-stage in Pakistan in the past couple of years, especially videos about under-reported crimes and those carried out by the security establishment. The indigenous and organic Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) can be an interesting case study of how social media is used to report from areas where traditional media is either non-existent or under severe clampdown. The movement’s leaders, especially Manzoor Pashteen, routinely disseminate their messages through videos and Facebook live posts. While a direct comparison cannot be drawn between the war-torn erstwhile FATA, and Sindh, it is nonetheless interesting to probe why no nationalist leaders or leaders of social movements in Sindh have used social media in a similar manner.

It is because, Veengas explains, that the Sindhi print industry is strong and the paper enjoys a significant part of rural and semi-urban culture of Sindh. “People don’t need to resort to social media because the Sindhi media reports even on topics considered controversial or dangerous,” she says. “Also compared to the mostly right-wing Urdu print media, Sindhi print media is largely secular and pro-democracy,” she adds.

“We have been reporting issues fearlessly since forever; this isn’t something new or out of the ordinary for us. We were reporting about MQM and Nine-Zero in the 90s when Karachi-based media couldn’t.” She explained how Sindhi media has routinely covered forced disappearances or alleged abductions of Sindhi and Baloch students and nationalists—topics that the traditional Urdu media almost never reports now due to state clampdown and censorship.

Well-known political show host on Samaa TV, Amber Rahim Shamsi, said that she has experienced “surveillance and monitoring by all three groups, whether it’s the state, non-state actors or audience”

However, fearless reporting has more often than not resulted in forced disappearances of journalists. Pakistan was ranked 142nd at the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders – a non-profit group geared towards advocacy on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press. A number of Sindhi journalists have been killed, abducted or have faced courts for their work. According to a report published in March 2018 by the group, two journalists were arrested from Hyderabad by the police on “spurious charges”. Police acknowledged that they have the journalists in custody after a month when a court ordered to present them before it. Another journalist was picked up in August 2017 for reporting on the separatist movement “a little too closely”, the report further stated.

It is often claimed that female reporters don’t experience these issues because they go out in the field or cover risky topics less often. However, women in the news media industry face unique professional and societal issues that may result in their number being less in the field—lack of structural changes in media groups to encourage women to top management, less chances of their getting promotions, and social and familial restrictions. But the ones who do report, say they face the same threats their male counterparts do. In a study by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) titled “Surveillance of Female Journalists in Pakistan”, various top journalists have shared their experiences of undergoing state and “social surveillance.” Well-known political show host on Samaa TV, Amber Rahim Shamsi, said that she has experienced “surveillance and monitoring by all three groups, whether it’s the state, non-state actors or audience.” She added that as a general observation there is no trend of one type of surveillance targeting female journalists.

“In some cases, intelligence and state agencies directly contact the journalists to indicate that they are being monitored. Some of our interviewees have been invited to meetings with intelligence agencies for the purpose of informing them that they are being watched. One interviewee mentioned that she was shown her emails and messages by government officials to let her know that she is under surveillance,” the report adds.

In another report by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), 59% of women surveyed said they have been attacked, threatened or intimidated for their professional and personal expression

In the same report, Journalist Ramish Fatima mentioned how her work led to character assassination online. “Various fake Facebook profiles bearing her name and pictures were made to target her integrity and character. This ordeal lasted for around eight months, exhibiting the lack of response by authorities and social media companies and the relentless campaigns that female journalists can be subjected to,” the report quoted her saying.

In another report by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD), 59% of women surveyed said they have been attacked, threatened or intimidated for their professional and personal expression. Six out of 10 respondents said they were “very likely” to self-censor information related either to the security establishment or religion in their professional interactions.

Najia Mir started her career as one of the first Sindhi news anchors on a popular Sindhi TV channel KTN. She is an active user of social media and habitually shares updates on her Facebook about current news, events she is attending and social issues. Soon, she faced the same issues many women undergo when they try to reclaim online spaces—multiple hacking attempts of her social media accounts as well as fake accounts in her name. Najia says that now she understands the importance of digital security and employs various measures to keep her electronic devices safe and secure.

People had to revert to traditional media, like news channels, to verify the news. Now, scores of people visit Pahenji Akhbar’s website and share its content round the clock.

While there is a growing number of women at the desk or behind-the-scenes staff in Sindhi media newsrooms, number of female reports is negligible, says Ali Kazi, owner of Pahejni Akhbar (Our Newspaper). Housed in a small but modern building in Karachi’s Defence area, Pahenji Akhbar is a daily as well as one of the few 24/7 Sindhi digital news outlets in Pakistan. It employs a staff of around 250-300 people. While many other dailies, such as Daily Ibrat and Kawish, have a digital presence, it is only limited to them posting an epaper in the morning. But outlets like Pahenji Akhbar and Awami Awaz regularly post breaking news and updates.

“The response has been tremendous,” Kazi says about his digital initiative, which was launched in November 2018, four months before the paper’s launch. He adds that the outlet has a significant network of reporters “from Islamabad to Kashmore”.    

He says that previously there was no way for social media users to verify news and videos, not already covered by mainstream media and originating from rural and semi-urban Sindh since there existed no proper digital news outlet. People had to revert to traditional media, like news channels, to verify the news. Now, scores of people visit Pahenji Akhbar’s website and share its content round the clock.

“Our readers originate from within Pakistan and also outside of Pakistan,” he said.

In the last week of April 2019, a video started circulating of a man who was brutally tortured by a local leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The Twitter accounts which had posted the videos claimed the man was a driver of Iftikhar Loond – a PTI leader, who allegedly assaulted him from behind with a foreign object. The video sent shockwaves around the country and was soon covered by English and Urdu media.

Everyone keeps talking about digital but all we see is traditional media, like newspaper and TV, get the lion’s share of the ads

Ali Kazi

Kazi says that the news was first broken by Pahenji Akhbar. The digital desk of any English or Urdu news outlet would confirm that viral videos on social media, and tweets form quite a significant part of the daily news cycle, and they bring a lot of traffic too. “While I did not see such kind of “viral” stories on Awami Awaaz and Pahenji Akhbar”, Kazi said, “there were many instances content shared on social media helped us break important stories,” and the Loond story was one of them.

Another incident that was reported by only this newspaper took place in Mithi, Tharparkar. A young man was tortured and paraded with a blackened face after allegedly being caught trying to meet his lover in the village next to his. The video started making rounds on WhatsApp, after which Kazi sent his reporter to get the story.  The following day, Pahenji Akhbar was the only daily which had covered the story.

In fact, the website has a separate section titled “citizen journalism”, which invites readers to share their content. However, like Veengas, Kazi also thinks that  in these cases so far social media has not had the kind of effect which would translate into offline action or even online mass rallying.

Like many new digital outlets, generating revenue or even achieving break-even is an issue for Kazi. The global issue of ever-decreasing ads to the news media industry is a concern here too. “Everyone keeps talking about digital but all we see is traditional media, like newspaper and TV, get the lion’s share of the ads.”

“We don’t have enough ads. Right now, it is costing almost as much as taking out a newspaper,” Kazi says about his digital news outlet.

Despite that, the Pahenji Akhbar website checks the basic markers of a visually appealing experience. The website also has social share buttons and a YouTube channel. However, the homepage shows the e-paper which then leads to the online versions of the story you click on the e-paper.

English and Urdu media industry are undergoing a major financial crisis which started around mid-last year. Scores of staff were laid off or endured significant salary cuts. Well-known TV anchors were allegedly let go by their channels for airing views deemed dissenting by the security establishment. Also, this government does not dole out as many ads as the previous governments of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). However, the effect is not as pronounced on Sindhi media as Urdu and English media.

“No Sindhi media group is expressly pro or anti-PPP and/or PML-N like some Urdu TV channels are, or tow a particular political party’s line. There is no comparison,” Kazi explains. For his digital initiative, he says it is too early to say about how the situation will turn out.

No Sindhi media group is expressly pro or anti-PPP and/or PML-N like some Urdu TV channels are, or tow a particular political party’s line. There is no comparison.

Ali Kazi

Threats to Sindhi media and journalists come from multiple and often additional players than traditional Urdu and English media does. In Sindh, these can include the party ruling the province, Sindhi nationalist parties, whose student wings enjoy a significant influence in Hyderabad’s universities, feudal lords as well as the traditional players like the security establishment. Kazi faced “hundreds and hundreds” of threats and situations like these so that when I ask him to elaborate he is just unable to point a finger at a particular incident.

“This is part of the game,” he says.

But what about the Sindhi journalists who continue to be abducted, especially those allegedly by the deep state?

Both Kazi and Veengas tell me that it is rare that such incidents happen after a particular story—which is in stark contrast to the experiences of many English and Urdu media journalists who faced intimidation and harassment by state, as well as organised and targeted online abuse and trolling after a specific tweet, story or a beeper. In the Sindhi media industry, Kazi claims, in a lot of cases it is whom the journalist has social relations with rather than his journalistic work which could lead to his abduction.

Saher Baloch, a well-known journalist, who has extensively reported all over Pakistan including Sindh, believes that as of now the most immediate threat is to those who cover forced conversion stories.   

It is especially dangerous for local journalists to cover these cases since the madrassah management of the Barchaundi shrine in Daharki—whose name almost always appears in forced conversion stories—keeps tabs on reporting on the cases. According to Saher, the members not only carry out the conversion but also handle the “entire process”, including logistical help like booking bungalows for the “couple” to sometimes showing up at courts armed.  

In the Sindhi media industry, Kazi claims, in a lot of cases it is whom the journalist has social relations with rather than his journalistic work which could lead to his abduction.

“I had to only cover the story and leave by the next day but it’s not safe for journalists who are local to the area,” she said. Even then, Saher said, local fixers and journalists told her that the madrassah members grilled them with questions like “who is she, why is she reporting this, and who is helping her”.

“English, Urdu and Sindhi media groups have also received threats regarding reporting on the Thar coal project,” says Saher. The project is part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and is being overseen by the Pakistani energy company, Engro.

In her report, published in January 2017 in Daily Dawn, Saher wrote how the local population in Islamkot, a town in Tharparkar, protesting against the construction of a reservoir on their land were being labelled anti-state. The reservoir was going to be used as a dumping ground for brackish water taken out of a mining site nearby. The residents, most of whom were Hindus, said 12 villages stand to be affected by the reservoir, being constructed on their land. 

“I was asked [by the project’s overseers] why was I covering these stories,” she said.

Even then, Saher said, local fixers and journalists told her that the madrassah members grilled them with questions like “who is she, why is she reporting this, and who is helping her”

Saher adds that Sindhi media is the only one in Pakistan consistently reporting on all topics from CPEC, to alleged corruption in the incumbent government to topics Urdu and English media won’t discuss. But the threats have become “very blatant” now.

Have the threats forced her to self-censor? “I have never self-censored when it comes to reporting,” she says. However, after the Cyril Almeida fiasco, her then-employer Dawn had cautioned its reporters to not pursue stories on topics like civil-military relations and enforced disappearances. Dawn journalist Almeida was briefly placed on the Exit Control List (ECL) and later faced court for publishing an exclusive story in Dawn regarding a meeting of top civil-military leadership.

While many journalists and activists now realise the importance of digital security, a vicious internet clampdown by state has made it impossible to avoid voicing your opinions on anything without facing the repercussions

While Urdu and English media journalists face unique online threats and organised trolling on social media, in addition to offline threats, the line is often blurred for journalists working in the Sindhi media. It is also seen that activism and citizen journalism using social media can be a double-edged sword in rural and semi-urban settings, where the consequences aren’t confined to just fake news but can become a matter of life and death for people.   

Therefore, it is essential that the major players in Sindhi media, especially with a digital presence, give immediate and utmost importance to devising a strategy for battling existing and potential online threats. If recent events are to tell us anything, these threats can be against a particular journalist or in the form of organised attacks on news media groups, like the Dawn Media Group—which published an editorial in April 2017 stating it has been facing cyber-attacks since the past three months. While many journalists and activists now realise the importance of digital security, a vicious internet clampdown by state has made it impossible to avoid voicing your opinions on anything without facing the repercussions. Sindhi media should learn from these developments and hold discussions on how to avoid a similar pattern and be prepared for when internet penetration and social media use in rural Sindh increase.

Written by

Sindhu Abbasi is a Karachi-based freelance journalist who reports on gender, internet and society, and digital rights. She has previously worked for Geo, and has bylines in Dawn and Hamara Internet.

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