Today, it is very easy for a journalist to go on social media and share his two-cents on anything that is happening around the world. Not for women journalists though. They’re still being abused, threatened and attacked for voicing their opinions in the digital space.
Women journalists are trolled online, they are made fun of and harassed. The perpetrators are not just ordinary men, but in some cases have strong political affiliations.
“As someone who has just entered the news industry a year ago, I have to be very careful and cautious about what I’m talking about or even sharing on social media, especially Twitter,” Muzhira Amin, a journalist at a local television channel said.
“I hardly share the stories I do on these platforms because I get unnecessarily criticized for them,” she said, adding that this issue is especially faced by women.
To highlight this issue leading Pakistani women journalists launched a campaign under the hashtag #AttacksWontSilenceUs back in August. The campaign, including a joint statement initially signed by 15 prominent journalists, describes the violent nature of these attacks.
The petitioners simply want one thing: online safety.
The story of women facing harassment both online and in newsrooms is not new in the country. It dates back to when the first woman stepped into the field years ago.
A trip down the memory lane
“Treat me just like you would treat a male reporter,” Shahida Kazi, former journalist and professor, said to one of her first editors over 44 years back, as she took her first steps into the male-dominated news industry.
“I was the first female reporter at Dawn in 1966 and on my first day I was sent to cover the engagements of the Queen of Afghanistan,” she reminisced. “The society at that time was conservative and my choices were often not just questioned, but also looked down upon.”
Since then, a lot of women have entered the industry and ventured into the male-dominated beats of journalism.
Afia Salam, another journalist, was one of the first women to venture into beats like aviation and cricket.
“From the time when I entered into the field up till now, the media industry has grown; for female journalists, there are far more opportunities and outlets today,” she said.
Female journalists have taken up every opportunity that has been offered to them and turned them into success stories. They have pushed boundaries and talked about things that were taboo in society.
From being on side of a male anchor getting less than half of the screen-time he got, women have come far to hosting their shows. Journalists such as Asma Sherazi, Gharida Farooqi and Amber Rahim Shamsi have taken the prime-time slots and are demanding answers from people in authority.
The once only male-voiced English newspapers also saw the editorship of females like Razia Bhatti, Nargis Khanum and many more.
Even after all these achievements, being a female journalist in Pakistan, having a voice and speaking against discrimination is a premium privilege that only a few women are granted in the country.
Our society claims to give women respect and hold them equal to men, but the country’s culture does exactly the opposite. Pakistani women are respected because of either their status or modesty (which again is a very subjective topic).
According to data by the World Bank, only 24% of the women above the age of 15 are active in the labor force of Pakistan.
In this situation, being a female journalist in Pakistan is nothing less than a challenge.
Female journalists, all over the world, face difficulties in their jobs, but in Pakistan, the danger is tenfold greater.
“As a female journalist in Pakistan, I was always alert of my surroundings and careful of how I navigated myself. Whist in America it was just me doing my job,” said Subuk Hasnain, a former employee at Herald.
It is not just about danger; women have to work harder than men to make themselves visible or validated.
Salam agreed that women had to work twice as hard as men to make their mark in the industry.
“Today, it seems that more women are entering the industry, but in reality, only 11% of the news industry constitutes of women.”
She added that the current media output reflects that women’s voices are not equally represented which is the sheer reflection of a woman’s position in our society. The lack of their say in decision making positions has given rise to a lot of sexism in the news industry.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands this.
“Men can empathize with women’s issues, but they cannot fully understand their psyche. A woman in a position of power is a need,” Hasnain pointed.
Pakistani newsrooms despite all these changes are still heavily men dominated where women’s ideas are often dismissed or delayed.
Dawn’s assistant editor, Naziha Syed Ali, said that this behavior is a representation of the chauvinistic society that we live in. “A woman’s work is rarely appreciated or acknowledged because they’re seen as playing a ‘supporting’ role while men are used to being given undue importance.”
“This leads to them feeling entitled to recognition and praise, even if they have scarcely done anything to deserve it,” Ali said, adding that at the same time, women in such societies are programmed to undersell themselves.”
Comprehensive newsroom policies
According to the majority of female journalists, for a start, there need to be comprehensive newsroom policies that set a tone of respect that women should be treated with.
However, as the media moves online with each passing day, these problems women face just seem to increase. While social media platforms give media the chance to break through the barriers of censorship, it has, at the same time, taken away the anonymity of journalists.
Women journalists who criticize or challenge narratives or policies online have to face harassment on both personal and professional levels – unlike their male counterparts.
The news they put forward is routinely labelled as ‘fake’ or ‘incorrect’ on the pretext of it being given by a woman. This is usually pointed out by political party workers and government officeholders. This is followed by a vicious cycle of trolling and cyber harassment.
This online harassment is preventing women from doing their jobs.
According to Hostile Bytes — A Study of Online Violence against Women Journalists, 77 percent of women journalists resorted to self-censorship to avoid online harassment.
Women have also tried to report the harassment in the FIA’s cybercrime wing.
According to Amber Shamsi, host of show Sawaal with Amber, “Women journalists who reported saw that their case was shoved into a corner, not investigated and in some cases they had to face counter suit defamation cases.”
More than 192 women journalists across the country have now come out in support of the petition. It read that unfounded accusations of peddling fake news are hurled at journalists by government officials. They are also accused of serving political agendas and being on the payroll of political parties.
“Such accusations then trigger abusive campaigns targeting journalists. In some instances, our pictures and videos are also used and our social media timelines are then barraged with gender-based slurs, threats of sexual and physical violence.
So vicious is this campaign against women that even the women/female members of our male colleagues’ families are not spared. Their photographs and videos are doctored, distorted and leaked on social media,” the statement said.
“We women journalists now often find it difficult to remain active and engage freely on digital platforms. Out of fear of being hounded and harassed, and our dignity being violated through vile abuse, many of us self-censor. Hence, we refrain from sharing information, giving an opinion or actively engaging online.” They urged the government to investigate and identify networks that have been prominently engaged in launching and running coordinated attacks, hashtag campaigns and abusive campaigns against women in the media.
They called for action against those officials found to be directly or indirectly engaged in the discrediting and harassing of media women.
After the petition, Chairperson Standing Committee on Human Rights Bilawal Bhutto Zardari invited the journalists to brief the committee about the issue, the proof of harassment incidents was given by journalists and the women were promised that action will be taken soon.
Ever since the petition went public it has gained momentum to the point that international organizations such as the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters without Borders (RSF) have publicly supported the cause.
As one of the fifteen women who started the hashtag AttacksWontSilenceUs and initially filed the petition, Shamsi said,
“Our goal with this petition was to ask for investigation of the networks that are part of these coordinated attacks, a separate desk in FIA cybercrime wing and support for violence against women online.”
“Political parties need to develop codes of conduct for social media use in a public/official capacity by party members, affiliates and public office holders,” said Reem Khurshid, a journalist at Dawn and also a signatory of the petition.
Back in July, Minister for Human Rights Dr. Shireen Mazari met with a delegation of Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ). The delegation pointed out the harassment and the fear it instills in female journalists. They urged the minister to take action under the cybercrime bill.
The human rights minister said that both she and Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the harassment and had a clear stance against the abuse.
After the petition first came out, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) rejected running any campaign pressurizing journalists in the past or present. It added that targeting only PTI in the statement showed “bias” and “holds no credibility”.
In September, a new statement launched by Pakistani women journalists demanding all political parties to act with dignity and protect the constitution and freedom of speech.
Women today have realized that they don’t have to rely on the rules set up in the past and have the power to say no to things that don’t seem right. That in itself is an achievement for a female journalist today, and it will hopefully help make the path of future women journalists easier to navigate through.