Digital safety for women journalists – a goal still distant

Early this year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres characterized online violence and harassment against women journalists as synonymous with an attack on media freedom that can no longer be normalized or tolerated as the “inevitable” risk of engaging with audiences online.

In a tweet in March, he described online harassment campaigns as “designed to: belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability journalism and trust in facts; and chill their active participation (along with that of their sources, colleagues and audiences) in public debate.”

Much of the language in Mr. Guterres tweet echoes the statement issued by several dozen women journalists on August 12, 2020. The statement identified coordinated trolling campaigns that included violent messages, rape and death threats, hacking attempts, as well as doxing, against women journalists critical of the government in power.

“We are being prevented from exercising our right to free speech and participate in public discourse. When we self-censor, others are prevented from receiving information to form their views, which is a violation of their rights under Article 19-A.”

The distance between how seriously, and with what clarity, the UN Secretary General takes online violence and harassment against women journalists, and the response of government officials in Pakistan is wide.

Human Rights minister Dr. Shireen Mazari expressed sympathy without action; Planning minister Asad Umar indicated the real position of the ruling party which was called upon in the statement to take action: “Using abusive language against anyone…. Man or woman is wrong. Period. Spreading fake news is wrong. Period. Labelling those who call out your fake news as abusers is wrong. Period. All these three things are happening. All three should be condemned.”

The tenor of Mr. Umar’s ‘all lives matter’ tweet saw no difference between the imbalances of power and resources, the vast difference between the kinds of attacks men and women have to face, and the chilling effect such harassment campaigns have on freedom of speech.  No surprises then that beyond a politically charged meeting by the National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee a few weeks after the statement was issued, nothing moved. Indeed several women journalists spoken to for this piece say the attacks have intensified.

One of the original signatories and co-authors of the August 12 statement, Benazir Shah, says she is among those that have been “labelled” as a target for further attacks. “The government has doubled down. Officials don’t seem to understand what harassment means.” In her testimonial to the human rights committee, Ms. Shah had named government spokespersons who ‘dog-whistled’ social media followers.

Following the first statement and committee hearing, several women journalists advocated for a broader statement that included other political parties, along with further recommendations to address the issue. The second statement was released nearly a month after the first statement. One of the co-authors and signatories, Maria Memon, says “The social media teams of the various political parties have been strengthened. Coordinated campaigns have been normalized. Look at what happened to Absa Komal [anchor on Dawn News, targeted for an interview with an Afghan Taliban spokesperson]. Being aggressive has become the new normal in order to be heard.”

It is also worth noting that the opposition parties that enthusiastically took up the cause also failed in their duty to hold the government to account on the lack of action. The National Assembly Human Rights committee chaired by Pakistan People’s Party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari promised investigation and the summoning of officials and social media teams believed to have been involved. The women journalists who appeared before the committee also submitted details in their testimonials as proof of these campaigns to the human rights minister. None of the promises saw the light of day.

Local media unions and NGOs have included the recurring issue in their webinars and research projects, but without a clear understanding of the path forward. Media organisations remained silent, nor did any offer support their employees. On a positive note, the Pakistan Bar Council has created a journalist defence committee to provide free legal assistance to journalists – regardless of gender – to help defend cybercrime cases.

Clearly while the first statement created waves – picked up as it was by the Pakistani mainstream media and unions, internationally by the United Nations, human rights and media rights organisations, as well as multilateral institutions – the message from the inaction of the government, political actors and media organisations is that the concerns of women journalists do not matter.

“The response from the government and opposition were political positions for point-scoring,” says Ms. Memon. “The lesson is that when women are divided, they will be used for other people’s agenda.”

Ms. Shah places the inaction more broadly in the climate of fear and censorship, indicating the government’s lack of interest in preserving a free press. “Journalists continue to be labelled and targeted,” she says.

The best opportunity to respond could also have come through the journalist protection bill presented in the National Assembly by Human rights minister Dr.Shireen Mazari this year. While the ministry memo on the bill states that Dr. Mazari has condemned the harassment of female journalists, Ms. Shah notes the definition of harassment in the law is limited to “sexual harassment”. Meanwhile, there is no mandatory inclusion of women in the commission empowered to investigate claims.

The difference between the response in Pakistan compared to the progress internationally is stark. UNESCO published a report this year called ‘The Chilling’ documenting the characteristics and trends, with recommendations for what individuals, the state, political parties, social media companies, media organisations and local unions could do to protect women journalists. The International Women’s Media Foundation has funded an NGO called TrollBusters in order to collect data and engage other partners to help combat this global trend. The International Federation of Journalists is actively engaging with local unions in order to address online harassment too.

Already few in number, women journalists do not have the resources or capacity to monitor eruptions of fresh attacks, collect data and pursue cases. This is not their primary job, nor should it be. Given the lethargic response after the first month, unions and NGOs must assist women journalists in pressuring the government and political parties to deliver on their promises, otherwise this issue will remain a stain on the government’s poor freedom of speech and press record. 


August 12 statement demands

The government should: 

  1. Immediately restrain its members from repeatedly targeting women in the media
  2. Send out of a clear message to all party members, supporters and followers, to desist from launching these attacks, whether directly or indirectly.
  3. Hold all such individuals within the government accountable and take action against them. 


September 07 statement demands

  1. Immediately draw up and adopt a code of conduct for the social media teams of political parties, public bodies and other public/state institutions.
  2. Investigate within to identify networks which have been prominently engaged in launching and running coordinated attacks, hashtag campaigns and abusive campaigns against women in the media. 
  3. The Election Commission of Pakistan should direct all political parties to have declared and transparent social media setups under the Right to Access to Information Act, 2017.
  4. Initiate investigation and take action against those officials for whom there is evidence available that they are directly or indirectly engaged in the discrediting and harassment of women in the media. 
  5. The Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) and police should fairly and efficiently process complaints, without any pressure to withdraw or an environment of victim-blaming. 
  6. The FIA’s Cyber Crime wing must set up dedicated desks to facilitate the registration of cases of digital violence against women. Officials must be given comprehensive gender-sensitivity training. 
  7. The journalist protection bill should be cognizant of the digital threats and violence against journalists and facilitate effective investigations.

Unesco recommendations pertinent to Pakistan

Individual States could:

  1. Ensure that laws and rights designed to protect women journalists offline are applied equally online as required by UNGA Resolution A/C.3/72/L.35/Rev.1 (2017) and reaffirmed by UNGA A/RES/74/157 (2019), which calls on States to observe the particularities of online threats and harassment of women journalists through: “Collecting and analysing concrete quantitative and qualitative data on online and offline attacks or violence against journalists, that are disaggregated by, among other factors, sex” and “…publicly and systematically condemning online and offline attacks, harassment and violence against journalists and media workers.”
  2. Consider introducing protocols and guidelines to act against officials who engage in gendered online violence and ensure prosecution of those who attack women journalists.
  3. Make social media companies more clearly accountable for combating online violence against women journalists.
  4. Introduce regulation that provides victims of online violence with effective access to appeals against platform (in) action, including (where required) an independent, national ombuds facility.


Political parties and other political actors could:

  1. Desist from mounting attacks (on and offline) against women journalists and discourage pile-ons against them.
  2. Punish members and officials who partake in acts of online violence against women journalists.

Media organisations could:

  1. Introduce or update protocols and guidelines pertaining to online violence to ensure they are gender-sensitive and gender-responsive, and develop appropriate responses in the context of weaponized social media platforms, viral disinformation, far-right extremism and conspiracy networks.
  2. Hold the platforms to account through critical reporting, and advocacy on media freedom and journalism safety, regardless of commercial ties to the social media companies.
  3. Ensure online safety support is holistic (integrating psychological, digital security, editorial, and legal responses), as well as responsive to intersectional threats/impacts, and readily available to all staff and freelancers.
  4. Make it clear that it is not appropriate for staff to participate in acts of targeted online violence (including trolling) against women colleagues or those working for competing news outlets.

Civil society organisations and donors could:

  1. Reinforce the call for responses to online abuse of women journalists to conform to international human rights standards.
  2. Partner with journalists, news organisations and researchers on investigative and monitoring projects about how online violence manifests itself, and responses to it.
  3. Help raise awareness and educate women journalists and editors in online safety, effective use of platform tools for countering online abuse, employer advocacy, and legal support.

Amber Rahim Shamsi is an award-winning multi-media journalist, with wide-ranging experience in television, radio, online and the print media.

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