Friday, December 08, 2023

The UK battle of three Pakistani women

Libel claim has been brought by Sana Hameed against Shanzay Shahbaz Sheikh

Shanzay Shahbaz Sheikh (left), Sana Hameed and Alyzeh Gabol. — Instagram/@shanzaaysheikh/reporter/@alyzehgabol
Shanzay Shahbaz Sheikh (left), Sana Hameed and Alyzeh Gabol. — Instagram/@shanzaaysheikh/reporter/@alyzehgabol

LONDON: Three Pakistani women from the fashionable class are at the centre of a London High Court defamation case — around allegations of fake Instagram accounts, defamatory WhatsApp posts from dummy numbers, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) probe, threats, Gonzo (a muppet comedy character), anonymous dummy accounts ‘Pakistani Phuppo’, ‘Gossip Girl Lahore’, ‘Gossip Lounge’ and other matters related to the fashionable class’s glamorous obsessions. 

The libel claim has been brought by Sana Hameed, originally from Lahore and now a successful banker in London, against Shanzay Shahbaz Sheikh, a well-known social media influencer and a glamour model, for over five social media posts which Hameed claims were defamatory of her and identified her as the person behind the fake social media accounts.

The case features a social media post by Alyzeh Gabol, a successful former model and showbiz star who now lives in Dubai and maintains a significant social media profile.

Now, London High Court judge Master Davison has issued a judgment on the “meaning” of the five publications at the centre of the case, and what it means for the claimant and the defendant if the case goes to the final trial.

According to the claim, Sheikh on March 20, 2021, instigated complaints to the FIA seeking a criminal investigation of those parties who were behind the Instagram pages: Gossip Girl Lahore, Gossip Lounge, Gossip Girl World Magazine, and Pakistani Phupoo.

Hameed has claimed that she was defamed in the five posts.

The first publication was on June 3, 2021, allegedly by “the defendant or persons acting on her behalf published on WhatsApp a picture of Sana Hameed placed alongside an image of the Muppet character Gonzo with the overlaying words: “EXPOSED! @gossip_girl_lahore” with the images and words: “We are working with FIA [...] to find out the people behind the page. I have also received many messages from unknown people and accounts saying that this woman is behind gossip girl page. Do you guys know who she is? She lives in London.” 

This post was published on WhatsApp and sent out to several numbers who knew Hameed and with it, two court orders were also released on WhatsApp: an FIA order directing Hammed to appear before the FIA Cyber-Crime reporting centre in Lahore and a court order for the registration of FIR against the “culprits” making “fake accounts” and threats.

Both orders were issued on the basis of complaints filed by Sheikh but her name was redacted in the WhatsApp messages; Hameed’s name was redacted in the WhatsApp publication too but the court order for the FIR registration bore her name.

Sheikh has denied being behind the WhatsApp messages and has denied sending out the two court papers on WhatsApp and she maintains she didn’t instigate others to do it.

The second post was published on June 3, 2021, by Gabol — a “puff piece” about the success of her lawyer, Harris Shahzad, in pursuing legal redress against “Hate Pages”.

Gabol had written: “Making fake accounts, posting someone’s pictures, violating dignity of a person, is a Henious [sic] crime. After that running away shows how coward you’re [sic]. Good work our lawyer @HARRISSHAHZ is taking down these culprits who are spreading false accusations and character assassinating innocent people. We will see them behind the bars soon Inshallah”.

Hammed told the court that Sheikh reposted Gabol’s story and wrote the word “excellent” to support Gabol and to defame her.

The third publication relied upon by Sana Hameed was a June 3, 2021, Instagram story consisting of a repost of a direct message sent to Sheikh by one of her followers.

Under an image of the Shahzad story, this follower had written: “We don’t need shaitan and godforsaken dajjal. We have such toxic women among us. Even worse are the women who were forwarding the posts snapshots in groups and bitching. Just plain sad! I don’t understand how they can write such shit about other women and their kids and then sleep easy. I really wish she serves time in jail for this.”

Underneath this post, Sheikh wrote: “Indeed she will and her girl gang too”. The post went on: “Worst are the people who are FOLLOWING them”; and “and this is NOT a justification that you guys are scared to unfollow because they will harm you. Although I move around in the Lahori social crowd (sometimes only tho) but I’m so scared of them. They say anything about anyone without any accountability and second thought. It’s just scary especially when one has kids and a family to whom your reputation matters. It’s just sick.”

The fourth publication was a repost of an Instagram story from @thestylejournal, a page maintained by Alina Shahid. This post was a meme of a woman getting into her car and driving away.

The caption to the meme was: “When the FIA knows your location”. Underneath the meme were the words: “Just to say you guy are [sic] from “respectable” family wont [sic] make you one [smiley face emoji] Ohhh! And the boys, enjoy until it comes on your wife/sister/mother [smiley face emoji] You know who you are!”.

Hameed said in her claim that Sheikh reposted this story and asked her followers to follow this page.

The fifth publication was a repost of an Instagram story from @PeoplePakistan (a page maintained by the defendant; but she reposted it on her @shanzaysheikh page).

The story consisted of a photograph of a court building beneath which were the words: “Did you know? There is a law in Pakistan under which people who post inappropriate content on social media while being abroad could be held in a trial”. Sheikh reposted the story with a red heart emoji.

Hameed told the court that the meaning of the WhatsApp message was crystal clear and it identified her as the person behind the @gossip_girl_lahore page and conveyed the clear message that she was under investigation by the FIA.

Sheikh’s lawyer accepted that the first publication identified Hameed and told the judge that Sheikh was not behind the publication although the court order did name Hameed.

For the remaining four publications, Hameed told the court that she was not named or identified in the four posts but any reasonable reader would have taken them to refer to her.

Sheikh maintained that she did not identify the claimant and therefore did not and could not defame her.

After the preliminary hearing of the meaning, the judge has ruled that the first publication identified Hameed as the person behind the page @gossip_girl_lahore, which she has been operating anonymously and who “has now been exposed” and that “the claimant is under active investigation by the FIA of Pakistan and there are reasonable grounds to suspect that she has committed a criminal offence.”

The judge ruled some parts of the first publication were defamatory at common law but not all parts.

As far as the other four publications, the judge has ruled that Hameed was not identified or named in these publications, and therefore, it is for her to demonstrate that the words were understood to refer to her that she was behind the fake accounts, which include @lahoregossipgirlxoxo; @gossip.shossip; @gossiplounge; and @pakistaniphuphoo.

The court will hold another hearing where the details about the final trial will be set if both parties fail to settle the case out of court and it’s at that hearing that several Pakistani social class witnesses may be involved as witnesses on the fake accounts, gossip, Lahori chatter and what details these accounts used to publish.

Hameed, a lawyer by training, represented herself in the court; Sheikh was represented by Barrister Melissa Stock.