The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Friday condemned relentless social media attacks on female journalists in Pakistan — vicious assaults that have threatened rape and even death.
The attacks often follow instances of public criticism of the ruling party, led by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket player who turned to politics later in life and whose following includes legions of young people.
Criticism had focused on Khan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pakistan has reported more than 304,00 cases of the virus, including 6,408 deaths. The numbers have been declining since June, with fewer than 400 new cases reported on most days and as testing has increased.
The relentless trolling and mounting complaints from female journalists prompted CPJ’s Asia program coordinator Steve Butler and senior Asia researcher Aliya Iftikar to warn that those spewing abuse online of female Pakistani journalists are often fans of the ruling party.
The New York City-based group did not provide evidence of direct links between the perpetrators and Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
CPJ’s statement, featuring testimonials from several female PakistanI journalists, comes after a petition, signed by more than 100 female journalists, was last month submitted to the government demanding an end to the online assaults.
“The target of these attacks are women with differing viewpoints and those whose reports have been critical of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s government, and more specifically its handling of the coronavirus pandemic,” the petition 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,” it said. “In what is certainly a well-defined and coordinated campaign, personal details of women journalists and analysts have been made public.”
The attacks have “dire offline consequences,” with many female reporters saying they are being forced out of their jobs or feel prevented from fully participating in their profession, CPJ said.
Khan’s government, as well as the country’s powerful military and its much feared intelligence agency, have been harshly criticized for their heavy-handed approach to its critics in the media. Journalists have been picked up and civil rights activists are in jail, some for months without being charged.
Others, such as rights activist Gulalai Ismail, have been charged with sedition for criticizing the military and have been forced to flee the country.
Separately, the Coalition for Women in Journalism, a global rights group, this week released an 20-page report on attacks on social media faced by female Pakistani journalists, saying that they come from online “accounts affiliated to the ruling party and conservative, right-wing elements in the country.”
“Such deplorable acts further draw our attention to the grim environment against women journalists and press freedom,” said Kiran Nazish, the group’s founding director.
One of the petition signatories, journalist Asma Shirazi who hosts a prime-time current affairs show, said that the journalists are not asking for sympathy.
“I need support for freedom of expression in the country,” she said. “I am not a victim. I believe in defiance.”
She said the trolling is an attempt by the government to shut down criticism on social media. “Whenever you criticize PTI, the attacks begin. They are all institution sponsored,” she said.
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