Islamabad: Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), a registered research-based NGO in Pakistan, has released a comprehensive Policy Brief shedding light on the distressing prevalence of cyber harassment endured by journalists and media practitioners during the year 2022. The report, based on data collected by DRF’s Cyber Harassment Helpline, exposes the challenges faced by journalists, with particular emphasis on the vulnerability of women journalists subjected to misogynistic and sexually explicit comments.
In 2022, the Cyber Harassment Helpline received a total of 75 complaints from journalists and media practitioners, comprising 34 females, 40 males, and 1 transgender individual. The data underscores the disproportionate impact of cyber harassment on women journalists, who not only face online abuse but also endure self-censorship and professional attacks, leading to severe personal and professional consequences.
The Policy Brief serves as a compilation of cases reported to the Helpline through various communication channels, including a toll-free number (0800-39393), available Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm, and other platforms such as email and DRF’s social media channels. The Helpline offers vital customized assistance to individuals navigating complex and intersecting vulnerabilities due to cyber harassment.
Key highlights from the Policy Brief reveal that Punjab witnessed the highest number of complaints (25%), followed by journalists located outside Pakistan, mainly from Afghanistan (17%). Of the total complaints received from journalists in 2022, 68% were related to cyber harassment, with 29% attributed to threats received by the journalists. Additionally, 13 complaints concerned hacking attempts on social media accounts or mass reporting, leading to disruptions in work and breaches of personal information.
The report also exposes an alarming rise in organized and targeted campaigns against journalists on multiple online platforms, instigating hatred and using disinformation tactics to harass their targets. Furthermore, the suspension of journalists’ social media accounts by social media companies has been a recurring issue. Often, content moderation fails to grasp the context, leading to “false positives” where journalists covering violence and conflicts are mistakenly suspended.
DRF’s Policy Brief includes several crucial recommendations for policymakers, law enforcement agencies (LEAs), and social media companies to address cases related to media practitioners. While DRF commends the bill on journalist safety, ‘Protection of Journalists and Media Professionals 2021’, it urges the government to address potential harms that certain sections of the bill, particularly section 6, may cause to the journalist and media community. The policy brief also calls for political parties to implement internal disciplinary mechanisms to prevent actions that harm or exacerbate harm towards journalists. Additionally, media houses are encouraged to provide holistic assistance to their reporters, journalists, editors, or any members facing harassment online or offline.
Nighat Dad, Executive Director of DRF, expressed concern over the increasing attacks against journalists on social media platforms, particularly highlighting the targeting of women journalists based on their gender. Dad emphasized the vital role of DRF’s Network of Women Journalists for Digital Rights (NWJDR) in supporting women journalists, but stressed that more needs to be done by the state, law enforcement agencies, and social media companies to ensure their protection.
Acknowledging that journalists, especially women journalists, often hesitate to approach authorities due to fears of threats and bribery, DRF collaborates with the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) to operate a complaint cell for the protection of journalists at NCHR. Established in August 2022, this complaint cell stands independently, providing anonymous and unbiased support to journalists facing human rights violations, including harassment, torture, and kidnapping. Complaints can be submitted in written form through letters, online forms, emails, or messages to the NCHR official number.
Rabiya Javeri Agha, Chairperson of NCHR, emphasized the critical importance of press freedom and media rights in a successful democracy, reaffirming NCHR’s commitment to supporting Pakistan’s journalist community.