Pakistan’s women journalists facing wide array of threats (Opinion)

Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places for journalists. Many journalists are charged with the offence of maintaining “anti-state” rhetoric and provoking the public against the military and elected officials.

Rights activists, especially those championing free speech, maintain that strong and free media is sine quo non for good governance and upholding the democratic values in a state. But, in Pakistan, the picture appears to be different. We frequently see a journalist being shot or murdered for exercising their freedom of speech and disseminating their views publicly.

Even so, the condition of women journalists is even more appalling. Women journalists find it extremely difficult to work in Pakistani society due to widespread online abuse, hatred and physical violence.

Freedom Network, a media watchdog, found 33 journalists were killed for their work between 2013 and 2019 in Pakistan. The report also revealed that journalists who work in print media are twice more likely to be targets of legal action than those who work in electronic media. Meanwhile, Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF’s (Reporters Without Borders) 2020 World Press Freedom Index. In 2019, four journalists and bloggers were killed due to their contribution and working in reporting.

Women journalists have recently come under fire as a large number of them are now facing threats in the form of rape, physical violence and intimidation in the form of public revealing of their personal data. Journalists, citing growing cases of online bullying, say that these can incite violence and result in hate crimes, putting their safety at risk
Experts say that given the poor statistics of gender inequality in Pakistan, women journalists have to go the extra mile within media spheres to earn high authority positions and standard wages as compared to their male counterparts.

On top of that, the continuous environment of toxicity and gender-based slurs has further undermined their abilities to work in the field with confidence and safety. Freedom Network, in its report, also indicated the deaths of two women journalists between the fall of 2019 and 2020 for pursuing their careers in journalism.

The women who speak against the incumbent government and its handling of the pandemic are severely targeted as revealed by women journalists who signed a petition against the government last year. “We are being prevented from exercising our right to free speech and participate in public discourse. When we self-censor, others are prevented from receiving information to form their views, which is a violation of their rights under Article 19-A,” the journalists said in the report. “In some cases, journalists have been locked out of their social media accounts as a result of hacking attempts.”

As per the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, women constitute less than five per cent of the total 20,000 working journalists, and this figure should be widely increased given the democratic nature and struggle for the economic stability of the state. Yet, we see they are suffering more in number than men in Pakistani media.

“I need support for freedom of expression in the country. I am not a victim. I believe in defiance,” exclaimed senior journalist Asma Shirazi.

According to one survey, one of the biggest challenges women journalists faces is sexual harassment that followed by social pressure, discouraging them to pursue this field. Online condemnation of their work, and lack of protection at working place, cause insecurity among them that make them to suffer deeper. Most of the women journalists also face threats and biased attitude from their family and society and are recognised as “bad women” because of choosing a career that only men can afford.

“I had to leave my job and career because of the bad name we bring to our families, the comments people leave on our pictures and the replies on our tweets,” said Ayesha Khalid, a former news presenter at Geo TV, one of Pakistan’s private news channels. “Not everyone has a strong support system. Many a time, my husband’s name would also be dragged into a Twitter argument as random trolls would tag him to humiliate me.”

Experts urge that with increased discrimination of women and their vulnerability in the society, the time has come to pass a strong legislation to protect their rights. They maintain that women journalists should be praised for standing headstrong and exposing social evils like corruption, rape, honor killings, helping the government to fight with the crimes and charge the perpetrators.
“The political parties are our first line of defense. When you crumble, the hands reach us. We have learned from experience that when you speak up, it makes a difference,” said senior journalist Munizae Jahangir.

Activists urge countrywide change both in media and in government, with dedicated efforts toward highlighting how bravely women journalists and analysts are working for the betterment for the country. They also say that capacity building of women would also be a commendable step to empower them, making Pakistani media a free, happy, safe place to work in.

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