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Are digital spaces safe for women journalists?

This blog has been written by Umaima Ahmed, Member of  DRF’s Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights.

Life is not a piece of cake for many, however, when it comes to women they seem to be children of a lesser God. Women around the world are exploited, mistreated, pushed to a corner, silenced for speaking up their mind and may even end up losing their life for not agreeing to what they are told to do.  As such most of the women who dare to cross the invisible red line between acquiescence and disagreement have to face punishment by the guardians of these norms.

Journalism is not an easy field for females who pursue the said career in Pakistan. Notwithstanding the passage of the Harassment of Women at Workplace Law, women generally have to work in a gender imbalanced and disquieting environment.  Women are always under the watchful eyes of trolls in online spaces also. and often go to the extent of being threatened and abused and there have been incidents where online threats have translated to offline harassment also.  The risk of online threats translating to the offline world creates  not only an unfavorable environment for journalists but also makes it difficult for them to perform their duties without fear.

Recently, we saw two renowned journalists Amber Rahim Shamsi and Gharida Farooqi coming  under attack on Twitter. These attacks came after similar threats against Asma Shirazi. Amber Rahim Shamsi and a number of other journalists were given a tour of North Waziristan by the Army to enable them to see the developments undertaken by the Army in the area. She was doing her work having been sent by her media house on this visit; however social media trolls started a campaign to malign her and started raising questions on her credibility as a journalist. It was unfortunate to see how some members of the journalist community also took the side of the opposition against  her. Such pressures are hard to deal with and resultantly affect the work and productivity of the person faced with this hostility.

In another incident, the TV anchor and host Gharida Farooqi tweeted about Brenton Tarrant, the Mosque attacker in New Zealand, and wrote about his visit to Pakistan a  year ago. In the resulting uproar on social media she received abduction, rape and even death threats. She was also called a traitor and was accused of tarnishing Pakistan’s image in the world.

Most recently the actress Mehwish Hayaat, who received  Sitara e Imtiaz on 23rd March, saw a massive slander campaign launched against her.   The harassment went from casting doubts on her character to accusing her of having cunningly manipulated the award results in her favour and was outrightly labelled as a prostitute.

This is not the first time women have been harassed in online spaces, yet we hardly see anyone being punished for it. The real question is what is the investigative wing of the FIA doing? Why can’t they take action on their own but have to wait for a complaint to be made? Every time a woman voices her opinion which is opposed to the mainstream, she faces severe backlash, giving rise to the question –  are women not equal citizens of this country? Why is getting justice such a tedious process that women prefer to remain silent about the issues they face?

On International Women’s Day this year, women from varied backgrounds and economic strata, enthusiastically joined by men, participated in Aurat March to voice their concerns against misogyny and patriarchy.  One of the issues highlighted during the March was online harassment as almost every outspoken woman in online spaces has to face such unpleasant situations, as a result either women are discouraged from using online spaces altogether or stop expressing their opinions freely. . No matter how many layers of security they use trolls always find ways to bypass these and breach accounts.

The number of complaints the Cyber Watchdog, the Federal Investigation Agency Cyber Crimes Wing, receives shows the seriousness of the issue necessitating immediate counter actions. This is a matter for not only the safety of women  journalists, but rather for all women in  cyber space needing a safe environment online. We are no longer living in the age of ignorance but in the 21st Century and it is time to move forward by ensuring implementation of laws, rules and procedures so that women find cyber space a safe environment for them.


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