September 21, 2020 – Managing Editor of the digital publication Naya Daur Ailia Zehra, filed a formal complaint with the FIA’s cybercrime wing after she was harassed online and received rape threats. The complaint was filed over the weekend, a few weeks after she appeared on a Facebook Live discussion on the organisation’s page.
In her complaint she points out that this is not the first time she has been abused on social media which she has not taken action against, but adds, “However, the extent and nature of the recent wave of abuse I have received online is too serious to ignore. This series of abuse and threats seems to be a well-organised and coordinated effort to cause me physical and mental injury.”
The threats that she refers to in the complaint are largely in the form of comments under the Facebook Live post on Naya Daur’s page.
Over the past few months, there has been a discussion on the kind of online abuse that women journalists face on social media due to their work, or when expressing an opinion. Earlier, this month a large number of women journalists released a collective statement asking the government and political parties to take stock of this abuse and implement an internal code of conduct that prevents party members from indulging in the behaviour. They also asked all political parties to unequivocally condemn the behaviour so it is clear to supporters that it is not endorsed or accepted. The statement also called for an investigation into organised trolling and harassment, which Ailia in her statement says she experienced on Naya Daur’s post.
Last month women journalists also presented their case to the National Assembly’s standing committee for Human Rights. In their statements to the committee the journalists read out some of the comments they received on social media and said that sexual comments or raising questions about their morality had become a common way for people to attack them, without engaging in constructive debate or criticism of their work.
In 2019 a study conducted by Media Matters for Democracy found that 9 out of 10 women journalists said online violence has a significant impact on their mental health and personal lives, while 8 out of 10 said they self-censor as a result of online abuse.
During this research the participants also expressed that they did not think the FIA cybercrime cell or social media platforms addressed their complaints seriously or were not likely to take action, which is why they did not report. Out of the 113 participants in the online survey, only 3 said they had reported online abuse to a law enforcement agency.
Hija Kamran, Programs Manager at Media Matters for Democracy said that the concerns raised by Ailia in her complaint and the statement of women journalists mirror those of most women using social media in the country. She says, “Women using social media have often found that these platforms are very slow to respond to abuse that they receive, often not recognising it as such either when they report it to the platform.
She also adds, “We have seen this with the kind of comments left under the posts of Aurat March, where social media companies fail to flag very serious rape threats as well.”
A report from 2018, where Amnesty International looked at the abuse women were subjected to on Twitter, found that 23 percent women in the 8 countries they surveyed censored themselves on the internet. The report said, “Despite some improvements, Twitter is failing to adequately meet its responsibility to respect human rights in the context of violence and abuse against women on its platform. The steps it has taken are not sufficient to tackle the scale and nature of the problem.”
Hija states that more pressure needs to be put on social media organisations and internally within the government to ensure that the internet can be a safe space for all women expressing themselves or performing their jobs.
Amel Ghani is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy and leads special initiatives on media development, digital rights, privacy online and Media and Information Literacy (MIL).