A series of Twitter notifications alerted Gharidah Farooqi that she was once again at the center of a harassment campaign. A hashtag, using a Pakistani term for prostitute, pulled in tens of thousands of hate-filled posts directed at the political journalist.
“I had already seen the hashtag at night but ignored it, thinking it is just a few people,” she told VOA. “By the next morning, it was trending on top and I said to myself, ‘OK, here we go again.’”
The online attack was upsetting, but not a first for Farooqi. The host of “G for Gharidah” on Pakistan’s NewsOne, has dealt with years of online abuse during her 20-year career.
When it comes to online trolls, Pakistan has ranked among the top five worst offenders monitored by the Coalition For Women in Journalism or CFWIJ. The global non-profit has analyzed digital threats in 132 countries for the past two years.
“Most women journalists are resilient and continue to do their work,” said Kiran Nazish, founding director of CFWIJ. But, “it does have a negative effect on their ability to carve time and resources to be able to report freely.”
The country’s female journalists disproportionately experience sexualized abuse and gender-related threats.
“Remove the online trolling from the equation, and what do you see? Women journalists being able to pursue journalism freely and asking tough questions without fearing discrediting campaigns online,” Nazish said.
In Farooqi’s case, the online attacks started after she shared news and commented on the arrest of an aide to former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Most of the attacks came from accounts that appeared to support his Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaf, or PTI, party.
Twitter took action to try to halt the abuse but by that point, the hashtag had appeared in more than 128,000 tweets.
Farooqi believes the PTI is behind the online harassment. She and other female journalists in Pakistan have previously accused the party and government officials of “instigating” online attacks that their supporters then amplify against critics.
Andleeb Abbas, the PTI Punjab information secretary and former National Assembly member, acknowledged that online attacks are an issue but said the PTI does not support harassment of the media.
Abbas told VOA that the youth running the PTI’s digital media are passionate volunteers who have far more important party activities to work on than pushing abusive hashtags.
Media bias should also be taken into account, Abbas said.
“Just because you are a woman and you are giving whatever news you want to, then you should expect whatever reaction there comes. Do not play [the] woman card,” she said. “If you are continuously giving news with a tilt and you are being identified as such, there will be a reaction, maybe not from the party but from the supporters. And the reaction comes not just for women but men as well.”
When Farooqi first started covering the PTI, she says the party was generally pleased with the coverage, especially when she reported on their dharna, a 2014 protest that lasted over 100 days.
But when the party came to power in 2018, the dynamic changed.
While being a fierce critic of the government when it was in opposition, the party had no idea it would come under the same criticism and scrutiny when it formed a government, Farooqi said.
She said the PTI and its supporters launched vicious social media campaigns against journalists, calling them Lifafa (sell-out), Ghaddar (traitor), Boot Polishiya (boot-lickers), and worse. Female journalists are on the worst end of a campaign to discredit media, she said.
Life as a journalist has always been a struggle for women, says Mazhar Abbas.
The political analyst and senior journalist at the Geo and Jang media group has been at the forefront of press freedom efforts in Pakistan.
Women in the field have always been under threat in Pakistan, Abbas said. They have fought through tear gas and baton charges, and one has spent time in prison with her 1-year-old child.
He recalled a time when women were denied assignments but said some progress has been made. Nevertheless, they are still exposed to online harassment and violence, and still face restrictions and physical abuse, he said.
“As far as online trolling is concerned, it has been observed that the digital media wings of political parties target women politicians and women journalists with a single agenda of discouraging and stoking fear in them, so they either leave their profession altogether or stop reporting fearlessly,” he said.
Asma Shirazi, a political journalist with AAJ TV, says that for years she has been targeted with abusive comments, false allegations, doctored pictures and character assassinations.
“If we complain to the leadership, we are told that the reaction must have been due to our critique of the political party [but] raising questions in the public interest is our job,” said Shirazi, who in 2014 was awarded the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.
Like Farooqi, she blames the PTI and other parties.
Both journalists believe the misogynistic attacks aim to stop women reporting freely by making them vulnerable.
“They are scared,” Farooqi said. “They do not accept democratic rights, do not want journalism or critical thinking to thrive in Pakistan, neither do they respect differences in opinion.”
Farooqi said she has filed multiple complaints to the Federal Investigation Agency’s cybercrime wing and is still awaiting action.
She jokingly says she has skin “thick as a crocodile” and pays little attention to online threats and violence. Shirazi also has coping methods: she has limited the reply option on her social media posts.
Farooqi, however, says she has seen colleagues self-censor-- either abandoning social media or avoiding asking tough questions.
Pakistan’s journalists have previously tried to improve conditions.
A group of journalists in August 2020 released a joint statement calling on the government and political parties to stop sexualized online abuse directed at women who report critically on the government.
In a little over a month, the joint statement carried more than 160 signatures.
Separately, in 2021, under Khan’s government, a Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals Bill was passed.
Under it, threats, coercion, and acts of violence and abuse of journalists are to be investigated, prosecuted, and penalized.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says that the protection offered is “conditional on reporters adopting a certain ‘conduct.’”
This article originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.)