Islamabad, 18th August 2020: A group of women journalists shared testimonials of online abuse that has exacerbated in 2020 at a meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights. The journalists were invited to brief the committee after they released a public statement documenting the increasing trend of online abuse and asking the government to intervene.
Accounts of targeted hate speech
Sharing their testimonies, various journalists talked about the onslaught of sexual slurs, threats of violence and attempts to discredit their work.
“The abuse we face is of a very sexual nature” said Mehmal Sarfaraz, recounting a number of tweets that contained examples of graphic sexual threats, “Our contact details are leaked online. We face all kinds of threats, including threats to life”.
Other journalists shared details of abuse they have faced after being wrongly tagged by officials and prominent ruling party supporters for spreading ‘fake news’. Journalists talked about the need for responsible behaviour by those holding party and government positions, saying that tweets personally signing out any journalist lead to an onslaught of hate speech, including sexual slurs and abuse.
Various journalists and anchor persons including Mehmal Sarfaraz, Amber Rahim Shamsi, Munizeh Jahangir, Ghareeda Farooqi, Tanzeela Mazhar, Aima Khosa , among others gave testimonials and submitted evidence of abuse to the committee.
Statement. Hearing. Action?
Committee Chair, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari issued instructions to forward the evidence to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for its appropriate investigation and said that the committee will follow the proceedings of investigation regularly.
One of the cases that would be referred to the FIA on committee’s instructions is Gharidah Farooqi’s case against Zartaj Gul, State Minister for Climate Change. Gharidah Farooqi had filed a complaint against Zartaj Gul when she had a released a video accusing Gharidah of wielding influence through the office of then Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. In the video she had claimed that Farooqi is married to then CM and controls who gets access to the CM house.
Today in NA HR Comttee hearing, Chairman @BBhuttoZardari announced comttee would be resending my case (of scandalous attack, defamation campaign, cyber harassment) against Fed Min Zartaj Gul to FIA (which she got dispelled using her office & Interior Ministry office influence).— Gharidah Farooqi (@GFarooqi) August 18, 2020
Additionally, Federal Minister for Human Rights, Dr. Shireen Mazari also asked journalists to share a list of abusive accounts with her and assured them that if they were found to be associated with PTI, action would be taken.
Legislation and ‘Codes of Conduct’
Dr. Shireen Mazari condemned online abuse against women journalists and said that she understands the toll that such abuse takes as she also faces similar abuse online. Dr. Mazari said that the government has worked on the ‘Journalist Safety Bill’ and ‘Personal Data Protection Bill’, which would help improve the situation.
On the other hand, journalists seemed wary of new legislation and multiple journalists stressed that the focus should be on code of conduct for political workers rather than the introduction of new laws to regulate cyberspace.
The powerhouse that isn’t being heard
PTI MNAs present at the meeting took issue with the fact that the majority of testimonials talked about abuse from twitter accounts that demonstrated support for the ruling party or were directly engaged by the party on different positions.
Displaying a lack of understanding about power dynamics, members complained about being singled out and asked that “their voice be heard” and that “the government should not be pushed against the wall”.
The online response
As news of the hearing appeared on Twitter, women journalists who shared testimonies in the meeting were subjected to another onslaught of hateful tweets. Accounts claiming to be the supporters of PTI, self identified members of PTI social media cell, and some of the government representatives whose names were mentioned in the committee, took to twitter to either abuse the journalists or to call their testimonies into question.