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The battlefield of social media

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

Media in Pakistan is referred to as the fourth pillar of the state. Despite facing worst censorship both in civil and dictator rules, press in Pakistan has been playing an important role as a watchdog. Media’s contribution to strengthen democracy in the country can’t be ignored. In a pre scitech world, it was easy to control the press. Before 2002 there were no vibrant private tv channels. The hashtag phenomenon was not there to protest against bans or arrests of journalists.

In the classic case freedom of expression has been curbed using state machinery to gain some short term interests. Media in Pakistan sustained its growth and struggled in all  tough situations. When there were dictatorships media was under siege. When Pakistan entered a war against terrorism, media was targeted by extremists and there were targeted attacks on media workers. If we talk about only five years from 2014 to 2018, 26 journalists have been killed in Pakistan for their work. Out of 26 only 16 cases went for trial in courts, of which the prosecution and trial was concluded in six cases and conviction handed down in one case only. Media workers laid great sacrifices to safeguard freedom of press. New forms of  censorship have been used for the new forms of media  but struggle for free media is continued even today.

Journalists and press is facing serious threats from multiple quarters in Pakistan. Dissenting voices are shutdown, many senior journalists are sent home. Senior columnists are refused to get published. This has happened with journalists in the past also. In 2018 treason case was framed against senior journalist Cyril Almieda and his name was put on ECL. Later on the cases were disposed off on non-maintainability grounds.

Along with traditional censorship there is a new battlefield of social media. Journalists and activists are facing an endless campaign on social media, especially women journalists are facing severe and serious threats online. Senior journalist Nasim Zehra, senior anchor Gharidah Farooqi, activist and journalist Marvi Sirmed faced a series of maligning campaigns. Another recent example of an organised campaign is against senior journalist Hamid Mir. This new phenomenon is very interesting, on the one hand, social media provides an alternate media to those journalists who were silenced or facing censorship on traditional media. On the flip side of it, social media is becoming a growing threat to dissenting voices. Trolling has changed into organised campaigns against journalists/activists online and otherwise. Journalists are labelled as traitors, anti state when they criticise the powerful establishment of the country. In the case of criticism on the government, journalists are labelled as paid mouthpieces of the political party. Either way journalists are trolled, abused and threatened online. Credibility of the journalists having dissenting opinion is questioned and tarnished with fake and baseless allegations. Mostly these trolling accounts are either faceless or operating from outside of the country. These online threats get translated into real physical threats. There is no mechanism available for the journalist to respond to such maligning campaigns against them, or to investigate the perpetrators.

In a recent development a hashtag on anti Pakistan journalists surfaced on social media, thousands of accounts were abusing journalists and  random allegations were levelled against them. There is no way to know who is running these campaigns. With the growing influence of social media almost every  political party has established their social media wings, which are also used to troll operations or journalists who are critical of their policies.

In an ideal situation, journalists anywhere in the world would look up to the state to build some mechanism to protect them from abuses and baseless maligning campaigns. Concerned journalists are clueless who they should ask for help to stop this dangerous trend. Journalist’s job is to highlight failures and to inform people on government performance. Journalists do report on negative and positive developments. Media has a core responsibility of a watchdog and journalist’s professional obligations include objectively holding the government accountable for their promises.

Unfortunately media fraternity seems to lose its weight as there has not been a collective resistance against these campaigns and censorship. The new battlefield is social media where any journalist in the country can be the next target for doing his/her job. State has ensured freedom of expression in her constitution. Also, Pakistan has signed many international treaties and conventions that require the state to ensure  freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Reportedly the present government of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf is planning to bring in new legislation related to cyber security and regulating social media. Journalist community at large believes that banning or controlling social media will not solve the problem, it’s important for the state to display her commitment towards freedom of press.

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