OHCHR raises concerns over the disturbing trend of digital attacks on women journalists in Pakistan

September 9, 2020 – The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), expressed concerns over the prevailing situation of violence against women journalists and human rights defenders in the country. The comment acknowledges the initial statement by the women journalists that alarmed the situation, and said, “Pakistani women journalists last month publicly warned of what they described as a “coordinated campaign” of social media attacks against those who have been critical of Government policies.”

More than 150 women journalists demanded an end to violence directed at them on the internet, in a follow-up statement released on September 7. Under the banner of “Together Against Digital Abuse”, the signatories highlighted, “Vile and vicious attacks on women journalists by those affiliated with the government, political parties, and social media wings are increasingly impacting our work, mental well-being and security.”

The statement further states that unfounded allegations by the political parties trigger abusive campaigns against women journalists, which not only target their professional career but also attacks their personal life with their personal information being posted on social media, exposing them to further threats of physical violence.

The OHCHR comments, “In the vast majority of such cases, those responsible have not been investigated, prosecuted and held to account.”

This is further reflected in the statement by women journalists who put forth six demands from the government, including initiating investigation and taking action against those officials for whom there is evidence available that they are directly or indirectly engaged in attacking women journalists on the internet. It also demands that The Journalist Protection Bill currently in the works must be cognisant of the digital threats and violence.

Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, says, “Digital violence against women journalists is not simply a matter of attacks on an individual, these attacks have a real and documented impact on journalism and deter women from conducting their professional duties.” She adds, “Since most of these attacks are done in the guise of supporting different political parties, institutions and government, the responsibility to take a stand against them, condemn and discourage them also lies with these power houses.” 

The OHCHR echoes the concerns mentioned in the statement by the women journalists, and shares that the institution has directly raised their concerns with the Government urging it to take immediate steps to protect women journalists and human rights defenders on the internet. It mentions, “We also stress the need for prompt, effective, thorough and impartial investigations with a view to ensuring accountability in cases of violence and killings.”

Pakistan is ranked one of the most dangerous countries for journalists with World Press Freedom Index 2020 by Reporters Without Borders ranking it 145th out of 180 countries.

The statement by women journalists concludes that the Senate and National Assembly committees on human rights must take notice of the situation in order to allow women journalists to “continue to report and disseminate information in a non-threatening environment where neither our work nor our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing and security are compromised.”

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