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In Rare Testimony, Female Pakistani Journalists Describe Social Media Attacks to Lawmakers

FILE - Journalists work during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2018.
FILE - Journalists work during a demonstration to mark World Press Freedom Day in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2018.

In rare testimony Tuesday, two dozen female Pakistani journalists complained that they have encountered “coordinated” vicious social media campaigns to harass, discredit and intimidate them for their work.

The highly emotional testimonies before a parliamentary committee on human rights brought some of the journalists from various Pakistani media outlets close to tears as they talked about the gender-specific harassment and threats they face online.

Some of them alleged that Twitter accounts affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party and right-wing elements in the society were behind the “organized” attacks.

Several of the witnesses described the explicit nature of sexual abuse they faced, including social media trolls calling them “prostitutes” or “whores” and threatening them with rape or death.

Journalists demand investigation

Some of the journalists complained that their social media accounts were hacked and personal details leaked online. They vowed to resist the attacks and demanded an investigation by the committee.

“The political parties are our first line of defense. When you crumble, the hands reach us,” Munizae Jahangir, a television news anchor, said. "We have learned from experience that when you speak up, it makes a difference.”

“I am ready to fight, but there are a lot of young female journalists with me who are told by their families to quit their jobs,” said Asma Shirazi, a primetime television anchor.

“We are not going to let you keep our daughters at home by calling them whores or prostitutes.”

Shirazi added that her house had been broken into twice, and the crimes remain unresolved.

Journalist Reema Omar told the committee that threats against her included “how different people would like to rape me.” She demanded that the PTI condemn the threats.

One of the journalists said she lost her job after complaining about sexual harassment. Some of the witnesses warned that their testimonies could be used as an excuse to further curtail freedom of speech in Pakistan.

“I am especially noting down that you are not blaming any one political party,” opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, head of the parliamentary committee, said. “I have no other words other than to vociferously apologize.”

Federal minister targeted by trolls

Shirin Mazari, federal minister for human rights and a key leader of the ruling party, denounced the attacks against the journalists as “unacceptable.” She noted that she and her daughter have both been victims of social media trolls.

Mazari assured lawmakers during Tuesday’s hearing that her government would not tolerate such attacks and that PTI workers were not behind them.

“I took it up with our social media team, and they categorically denied that they were involved in such trolling,” Mazari told lawmakers. “If any PTI-linked accounts are involved, give me the information. I assure we will take action.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, the committee resolved to summon government and military officials in a next session to get their response to the allegations. It also promised to forward some of the cases brought up during the hearing to relevant Pakistani investigative agencies for further action.

The number of female journalists in Pakistan’s traditionally male-dominated society has increased in recent years, and so have incidents of online harassment and abuse, critics said.

Tuesday’s unprecedented testimony stemmed from a joint statement issued online and signed by dozens of female Pakistani journalists to highlight abuses they have encountered.

“Women in the media are not only targeted for their work but also their gender. Our social media timelines are then barraged with gender-based slurs, threats of sexual and physical violence,” the statement said. “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.”