Pakistani women journalists and commentators said on Wednesday that the government officials were “instigating” online attacks against them over their reports critical of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf administration.
“The online attacks are instigated by government officials and then amplified by a large number of Twitter accounts, which declare their affiliation to the ruling party,” said a joint statement signed by over 40 women journalists and commentators.
The joint statement said that personal details of women journalists and analysts have been made public in a “well-defined and coordinated campaign”.
“In some instances, our pictures and videos have been morphed,” the statement said. “We demand that the government immediately restrain its members from repeatedly targeting women in the media.”
Journalists in Pakistan have been complaining of increasing censorship in the country since Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government came into power in July 2018. Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs due to the financial crisis in the industry. Many say they were sacked by their organisations for their critical reporting of the government and the country’s powerful establishment.
The government, however, says the Pakistani media is freer than the British media.
“I have spent about 18 summers of my life in England. I have seen the British media; they are very open and free,” PM Khan said last year during his visit to the US. “But the Pakistan media, in my opinion, is freer than the British media.”
But journalists paint a different picture of the state of media freedom in the country.
“Women in the media, especially those on social media platforms, are finding it increasingly difficult to remain on these platforms and engage freely,” read the statement by women journalists and commentators. “Many now self-censor, refrain from sharing information, giving their opinion or actively engaging online.”
Benzair Shah, an award-winning journalist and an analyst, told SAMAA Digital that she has been trolled and faced online abuse in the past as well, but the attacks have become more relentless after her reporting of coronavirus in the country.
“This has been happening so often that I can now recognize the accounts which target me and other women in media,” Shah said. “The names have become familiar. Most, if not all, declare their support for the ruling party.”
The government officials “regularly accused” her of taking bribes from other political parties, she added.
“I am a reporter. I report what I see, in order for the public to make better informed decisions and draw their own conclusions,” the journalist said. “If I see discrepancies in Pakistan’s Covid-19 data, I will highlight it.”
The targeting of journalists is not only limited to online space, but if the government believes an anchor is critical of it then the party representatives would stop coming to their talk shows.
Amber Shamsi, who hosts a talk show on SAMAA TV, said that clips of her shows were circulated in WhatsApp groups and it made it difficult for her to get certain representatives of the PTI for her show.
“What they are doing is that they are creating a climate of fear,” Shamsi said. “When you are in the opposition that is a different thing but when you are in the government, you have state machinery on your side.”
The anchorperson told SAMAA Digital that she noticed that there were attempts to hack her Twitter account exactly at the same time when she was being trolled on social media.
“Around three weeks ago, my Twitter account was blocked because of multiple hacking attempts,” Shamsi said. She said that as a journalist she had been critical of all the previous governments, but she never witnessed such a “coordinated” campaign against her.
“I feel that it was never as coordinated as this and not at the official level,” Shamsi said, referring to the recent attacks on social media. “Some of the online attacks are sexual in nature.”
She believes that the campaign against women journalists was “sanctioned” officially. “If PTI’s official accounts are doing so, it really does show that it is…obviously sanctioned officially.”
Shamsi said the reason she and other journalists broke their silence over online attacks was that they want to start a conversation about the targeting of women journalists on social media.
“It’s time at least to have a conversation about media… how they are targeted and particularly women journalists and perhaps there could be some change somewhere,” she said.
The government has denied pressuring journalists in the past and it denied it again when SAMAA Digital reached out to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Focal Person on Digital Media Dr Arsalan Khalid.
“There is no campaign happening by PTI against journalists,” Dr Khalid tweeted, after this reporter contacted him. He said the micro-blogging website “has lots of toxicity” but people of all the parties and journalists contribute to it.
“Targeting only PTI in the statement shows bias and holds no credibility,” Dr Khalid said. “Also spreading fake news is as much of a crime as abuse.”