How these women journos took the beast of online harassment by throat

Dynamics of journalism and freedom of speech changed since online platforms emerged in Pakistan, especially for women journalists who remain more vulnerable to online harassment

Anchorperson and journalist Tanzeela Mazhar became an inspiration for her peers when she took the rampaging beast of workplace harassment by the throat in the face of formidable pressure from a bunch of toxic bosses in state electronic media — her then-employer. It was the dawn of a metaphor for intrepidity, perseverance, and a declaration of war on harassment online or offline.

Following this incident, Tanzeela resigned and became quite vocal about harassment against women journalists in the workplace. She was unemployed for several years because she spoke up on a subject that is usually not talked about. This put her in the limelight, and she became the favourite target — online and offline — but this did not deter her. She like many other journalists wasn’t easy to silence and she fought back for her right to freedom of speech.

“I regret that the higher management of PTV chose to save one person over its reputation … so, I find it very difficult to continue working," she said in one of her tweets she posted back then.

But she learned an important lesson that she had to keep talking and keeping herself relevant despite all the hate.

A representational image of a person deleting Facebook application from their phone. — Unsplash
A representational image of a person deleting Facebook application from their phone. — Unsplash

“Your opinion does matter”, she said, “When I joined social media initially, I used to engage with people, and I thought this was a very healthy way to communicate with the audience, as I am sitting on TV and didn’t know what my audience was thinking. It is believed that educated and young people are on social media, especially on Twitter.”

“After some time I realised that this was a waste of time and energy. A person who does not believe in dialogue, in women’s rights or human rights, you can’t engage with such people and you should not," she continued.

She began blocking people and muting comments because she thinks the needless hate and threats — rape threats, threats of abductions etc — take a toll on one’s mental health and career growth, and it is not worth it.

Tanzeela is part of a large group of women journalists who face online abuse, threats and trolling. About 56% of women journalists surveyed by Freedom Network said ‘they were targeted with gendered disinformation campaigns, which caused them physical, psychological or reputational harm’. This is many women, and these are only from a section of the entire media, where most women journalists refrain from reporting threats and harassment they face online and offline.

Women journalists prefer to self-censor or mute themselves on either spaces. They may leave online platforms, or they may even quit the profession as they are unable to cope with the pressures.

Pakistan has always been an interesting country when it comes to journalists and freedom of speech, and with the online platforms, the dynamics have changed somewhat exposing more journalists, especially women journalists, and making them vulnerable.

The Freedom Network’s Annual Impunity, 2022, report (November 2022) revealed the situation on the ground between 2012 to 2022 during which 53 journalists were killed in the decade (2012-2022).

Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index states that things have improved in Pakistan, which has moved up seven spots (150/180) in 2023 compared to last year (157/180 countries), Freedom Network’s report said things are not so great for journalists.

If a cross-section of this is studied with a focus on women the situation is worse, mainly because of society's misogynist attitude as Tanzeela said, “The majority of people in our society, not only just men, find it difficult to deal with opinionated women as they don’t want women to have opinions about political matters, state affairs, foreign policy, or anything.”

A woman uses her phone. — Pexels
A woman uses her phone. — Pexels

The IFJ’s South Asia Press Freedom Report for 2022-2023 (SAPFR22-23), Pressure & Polarisation: Powering Media Resistance in South Asia echoes this, “Press freedom continued to be a major concern in Pakistan despite the ouster of an authoritarian regime and the installation of a prime minister who promised more independence to the media.”

Freedom of speech is a human right as well as a basic constitutional right in Pakistan under Article 19 of the Constitution which also leads to freedom of the press. But things have not always been great for media in Pakistan which has always had to contend with forces trying to gag it. However, the media is resilient and always bounces back fighting.

Things have become a little more different since online platforms emerged, especially for women journalists, who found themselves facing more attacks, abuse, and trolling. They have become more vulnerable than before as there are so many ways to be targeted now.

Tanzeela added, “Our society has been keeping women’s perspectives out of the national content and perspectives, and still wants to silence women in online spaces. I have come to a conclusion that online trolling, bullying, and harassment are a reality of my life and career, and you have to choose whether you will allow these people to affect your work, mental health, and choices.”

She said that at times she wanted to give her opinion on certain topics but she could not for she did not want to deal with the trolling and abuse. Like many others she is deprived of her freedom of expression and speech, making her self-censor herself online and offline.

Sometimes things become too difficult for them to tackle especially online abuse, which sometimes manifests in real life. The majority keeps quiet mainly because there is a tendency in society to blame the victim in such a situation. And because they don’t know what to do and who to turn to, often fearing their families will pressurise them to quit.

Mania Shakeel, a broadcast journalist based in Karachi, has had a fair share of harassment since she joined the media. She has not only faced attacks online by trolls, but has also been attacked by colleagues.

“I have faced online and offline trolling, mostly because of the way I look,” said Mania, “I once worked with a bureau chief who would advise me on how I should look saying things like you should straighten your hair, wear your dupatta in so and so way so that you don’t look fat etc.”

A representational image of illustrated hate messages. — Pixabay
A representational image of illustrated hate messages. — Pixabay

She said this affected her a lot and she felt vulnerable and demotivated and had also contemplated leaving the profession at the beginning of her career.

Mania continued, “One woman I worked with used to criticise my looks and would say ‘Who will let her go on air.’ Another colleague would make it a point to stand behind my chair and said to no one in particular, “she is so dark that if she went out it will be hard to see her”. One boss I worked with always screamed at me for no reason, he wanted me to leave. He would say “the screen time is being wasted on her; she is not presentable’.”

“I complained to HR, but nothing happened, and, in the end, I was laid off. HR told the people whom I had complained against what I had said, instead of taking the case up.”

Mania said it is very hard to work under such conditions and it was worse because she was too scared to speak up and kept taking the abuse, which now she knows was unfair. Being a champion of freedom of speech, a section of the media demotivates women journalists not only suppressing them to keep quiet but also making conditions so bad that many leave the field.

Fortunately, Mania stayed but there are many women journalists who are facing harassment both online and offline; trolling and doxing are also used to threaten women journalists and to keep them quiet.

Representational image of a hacker. — Pexels
Representational image of a hacker. — Pexels

“In a separate incident, I had made a package which was aired and soon a video clip made by a mobile phone was being shared in different WhatsApp groups with comments like look at her she thinks she is such a big thing, look at her’ and other derogatory comments,” she added. 

“The online trolling continues targeting not only my work but also my looks. I have seen people comment ‘which zoo did she come from, how will she work and move ahead’. Sometimes it is hard to cope with this and affects me not only mentally but also my work.”

Mania is now vocal and speaks up, but she knows there are many women journalists who are silently taking the abuse and not speaking up.

Things are the same across the media. Senior journalist, Farzana Ali, Bureau Chief, Aaj News, Peshawar, has faced her share of harassment, trolling and abuse. She is a vocal and brave journalist and has never succumbed to threats because she knows how important it is to stand one’s ground and encourage other women to do the same through example.

“ media is another place where women journalists are being harassed and trolled. The trolls are not only common people but also political parties’ fan clubs," said Farzana Ali. 

“There are also some pressure groups or Taliban as in our region — if we say anything, comment, do stories or analysis or anything on them — their sympathisers also come after us saying these are secular people toeing a western line. If you are a woman, abusive words are used, and it becomes quite dangerous," she said

“There are certain political groups that commonly use extremely abusive language against women journalists.”

Farzana is aware of how difficult it is for women to keep working under such conditions.

 “Sometimes it becomes difficult for women journalists to continue to work. It not only affects them but their family and sometimes they are asked to leave the profession. Women journalists work in the field, the sexual harassment law only protects them inside the office and not the field. But since the inception of social media, it has become even more difficult as now women journalists are under attack from all sides — a very dangerous trend.”

However, having worked in the most dangerous conditions she knows that women journalists need to fight for their right to speech and freedom of the press and push back otherwise they will be deprived of the space they have.

A poster bearing a message against hate. — Pexels
A poster bearing a message against hate. — Pexels

“Women journalists should stand their ground and keep reporting facts and tackle the criticism. We as journalists are speaking the truth, we are not responsible if someone does not like it. We report based on the facts and we cannot give selected truth that some groups want to hear.”

“However, a majority of women journalists mute themselves and go on the back foot, and even leave the field because of pressure from their families.” 

But she thinks if you have decided to become a journalist, you must learn to cope with the issues and pressure and speak up, only then others will rally to support them. There is no point sitting quietly and taking the abuse, that is what these people want.

More women journalists are coming together and speaking up. In 2020, a group of women journalists, including prominent anchorpersons met a special committee on Human Rights of the National Assembly, chaired by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, now foreign minister, about the increase in incidents of women journalists being harassed on social media. Promises were made but no action was taken.

The only remedy was that many women journalists stopped muting themselves online and began tackling the abuse and trolling. They were supported by their male colleagues, but this took a toll on many journalists.

Despite this, women journalists in many areas still refrain from speaking up. According to women journalists in Balochistan, there was a lot of abuse and trolling online and offline, but no one wanted to talk about it. They said there was no point in speaking up, it would only cause more problems for them professionally and personally.

One woman journalist who spoke with The News on the condition of anonymity said: “When there is a harassment issue in Quetta it is never reported or discussed as the victim journalist does not want to come forward into the public eye.”

“There is need for safe digital spaces”, said Zeenat Khan, journalist and digital safety trainer based in Peshawar.  “We need laws to ensure women are safe online. Many women journalists are harassed and bullied online, and this will not stop unless we implement laws to protect them.”

An image shows a security website on a computer. — Pixabay
An image shows a security website on a computer. — Pixabay

Zeenat adds all women, especially women journalists, should be given safety training for online presence. “Digital security training should begin at educational institutions especially for women because they face a lot of problems online.”

Pakistani media will never completely enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press until serious steps are not taken to protect journalists’ rights. The fact that women journalists are unable to speak up for themselves fearing the consequences shows the flaws in the industry. All journalists regardless of their gender should exercise their right of speech and freedom of the press to do good journalism.

Media organisations, media unions, press clubs and media trainers need to investigate this issue and ensure that all journalists and especially women journalists can work without any harassment, trolling and threats. And the first step is to work towards the implementation of the existing laws to protect the rights of journalists, amending them where necessary to cover the rights of journalists.

Lubna Jerar Naqvi is a journalist, factchecker and media trainer. She is also the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Pakistan's gender coordinator, vice president of Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ), IFJ Gender Council member for 2022-2025, and recipient of the first South Asia Laadli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2015-16. She tweets @raiseqalam