February 23, 2018

The Ills of our Cyber village: Online Harassment

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of online harassment? Many readers might have already started recalling the unwanted sexual advances that they may have encountered. However, the scope of online harassment goes beyond sexual harassment. It also entails other intimidating acts encountered in cyberspace that make the recipient feel threatened, bullied or harassed. If you are being bullied for your political views, body shamed, threatened with physical violence, blackmailed for sexual favors or verbally assaulted because of your identity or any other reason, all of this falls within the contours of online harassment.

Different studies and statistics suggest that women are the prime targets of online harassment in Pakistan.  In 2014-2015, 3027 cybercrime cases were reported to Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Out of these, 45% of the cases were related to harassment against women. Another research recently undertaken by Digital Rights Foundation shows that 40% of women online faced different forms of harassment.

The scribe reached out to people working in media and civil society. It wouldnt come as a surprise that the majority of those who came forward to share their stories were women. They were not only sexually harassed but were also bullied for speaking their minds on political issues.  Aasifa from Lahore is one such case who was bullied online for her political views.  As an active social media user, she used to publicly vent out her frustration on social and political ills. However, she stopped commenting on politics a few months ago after she was bullied by her own friends.

“I was abused online by my close friends for speaking out against their favorite political party,” she said adding that it was quite unsettling psychologically, “to see your closed ones stooping so low”.

Fatima’s story tells how one can be targeted for not complying with ragging norms in college. She was harassed online by her seniors after she firmly refused to be part of ragging. This didn’t go down well with her seniors and they decided her to teach her a lesson. “They began to…spread rumors about me in college….made fake profiles in my name, (and) uploaded lewd content through them” The situation became extremely embarrassing when one of her relatives came across these profiles. “Emotionally, it weighed me down but my parents were quite supportive”.

But not all women receive the same kind of support from the family.

Uzma endured verbal assault for three years at the hands of her class fellow. “I hardly knew this person and could never figure out why he was doing this to me”. Ironically, instead of taking a firm stand with Uzma, her friends tried convincing her to ignore him as he was not psychologically well. In the midst of this situation, she could not even seek help from her family as she feared they might stop her from going to university.

“I was never a very social person but this incident further dissuaded me from socialization.”

Online harassment may not physically harm one but surely comes with psychological baggage for the victims to carry with themselves. All the victims of online harassment complained of experiencing prolonged stress and that subsequently affected their performance at work. The scribe talked to psychosocial trainer Usama Nizamani, who had been working with journalists for two years. He noted that the most effective stress mitigation strategy in the context of online harassment was to reach out to trusted networks (family close friends).

“In cases where victims are not comfortable in discussing matters with relatives, they should seek professional psychological help”, said Usama. However, Mr. Nizamani acknowledged that seeking psychological help was difficult in rural areas. Apparently, it all comes down to how strong a victim’s support network is. The stronger the network, the easier it would be for them to battle the psychological woes.

On the legal front, the Parliament of Pakistan enacted Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in 2016. The act has put in place punishments for different acts of online harassment ranging from three to seven years of imprisonment and/or fine ranging from one million to 50 million.

Section Offence Punishment
11 Spreading hatred against a person or a group. Imprisonment: Seven years

 

And/or

 

Fine: PKR. 50 million

20 Spreading information about a person that is false, intimidating and hurts privacy and reputation of a person. Imprisonment: Three years

 

And/or

 

Fine: PKR. One  million

21 Anyone who publicly displays or transmit information:

That superimposes face a person on a sexually explicit image or video.

-Includes a picture or video of a person in sexually explicit content.

-intimidates a person with sexual act or sexually explicit image or video of a person

-Cultivates, entices or induces a person to engage in sexual act

All this is done to harm the reputation of a person, create hatred or blackmail them

Imprisonment: 5 years

 

10 years (in case of offence committed against minor)

 

And/or

 

Fine: PKR. 5 million

24 A person is committing cyber stalking, if he uses electronic devices, internet et al. to intimidate a person by:

Contacting or trying to contact a person to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite the disinterest shown by the other person, or

-Monitoring a person’s use of internet, email or any electronic communication, or

-Spying on a person in such a manner that it evokes fear of violence, distress or serious alarm in a person’s mind, or

-Taking a person’s photograph or making their video and display or distribute it without their consent.

Imprisonment: Three years

 

5 years (in case of offences against minor)

 

And/or

 

Fine: PKR. One million

 

PKR ten million ( in case of offences against minor)

  • Different sections of PECA related to online harassment.

Despite the fact that the law was introduced a year ago, a recent study by Digital Rights Foundation suggested that 72% of women didn’t know about cybercrime laws dealing with online harassment.

Under PECA, FIA has been given the mandate to investigate cybercrimes and cases of online harassment.  Complaints can be filed with FIA’s cybercrime unit called National Response Center for Cybercrime (NR3C). At the moment NR3C has its offices in six cities including Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta. Alternatively, they can also be filed through NR3C website (http://www.nr3c.gov.pk) or their helpline (9911). In 2016, 3509 complaints of online harassment were reported to FIA. As of September 2017, more than 3000 complaints of online harassment have been filed with FIA. While reflecting on the plight of the cases, the FIA official shared that majority of the complainants did not pursue the case at all. “Almost 60-70% of the complaints are withdrawn by the complainants themselves apparently to save family honor.”

FIA has also been accused showing a lackluster response to complaints. However FIA official also complains of a lack of adherence to complaint procedures. “People need to understand that how can we reach out to them when they will not provide us with their complete contact details”. He added that out of 7000 cybercrime related complaints received by the agency, 20% of them were incomplete making it hard for them to reach out to the complainant.

As internet penetration rises and more Pakistanis enter the cyber village, all of us become more vulnerable to various forms of online harassment. The challenge for government would be to enhance the capacity of FIA. Most importantly, the psychosocial impacts of online harassment cannot be undone without the collective support of the society. Are we ready to collectively build a resilience mechanism against this challenge of 21st century?

Written by

Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. In the past, he had worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.

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