16 Days of Activism and the News Media in 2020

—by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Pakistani journalist Shaheena Shaheen was fatally shot in Kech, Balochistan on September 5, 2020. She was the second woman journalist to be killed within a year by her husband.

Earlier, another journalist Urooj Iqbal was killed in November 25, 2019 in Lahore, Punjab. Media reports that she was shot by her husband near her office.

Both women were reportedly also victims of domestic violence, the main reason for this was that they were journalist. Shaheena’s husband is still at large although Urooj’s husband was arrested after the murder.

Since the murderers are husbands of the victims these cases are liable to be lost in the multitude of domestic violence cases – which are largely ignored by the society as personal matters. And also these two murders and the way they are dealt will also reveal the situation on ground of impunity for crimes against journalists to be the norm. Such a situation makes the journalists and media even more vulnerable in Pakistan which is already considered to be quite dangerous for journalists.

And such cases make people especially women wary of joining a profession that is not only dangerous but has other issues that may cause more problems based on one’s gender.

In a society which is generally considered hostile towards women, it is interesting that they were not attacked physical earlier. This is a new trend that seems to have popped up after 2014, when during the media coverage of the 2014 Azadi march when several women journalists were verbally and even physically attacked.

Some women journalists had to take refuge in DSNG vans for protection and their colleagues had to physical stop groups of attackers getting injured in the process. This didn’t improve as time progressed, in fact the attacks became a little more aggressive round the last election in 2018.

Journalist, media rights activist and founder of Platform Chai Luavut Zahid based in Lahore said, “I think the entire industry needs a revamp. It’s not as simple as addressing one source of attack, there’s an entire system in place that makes the profession more difficult and dangerous for women. It’s not just backlash from unknown actors or the audience, it’s also in the newsrooms when your editor refuses to give you a beat based on your sex.”

Commenting on this Journalist Iffat Hasan Rizvi said, “Harassment that is being talked about a lot recently including bullying female journalists and their character assassination has become a big problem since the current government came into power. This trend seemed to develop right before 2018 but now we see other political parties across the board targeting female journalists.”

Iffat Hasan Rizvi is based in Islamabad and her work predominately includes reporting on the Supreme Court. She says there are different kinds of gender-based violence that women all over the world, as well as in Pakistan face. The main issue is harassment in the workplace which is a big issue in the media, just like other professions. Like other professions, women journalists don’t speak up against their harassers because they are either scared or don’t want to attract more untoward attention.

Now that there are more spaces – online – for them to be attacked, it is even more stressful for them.

And so the inevitable happened, and over time we saw attacks on women journalists move online and they became vicious as troll armies began targeting women journalists. A sudden spike was seen during the coronavirus pandemic as journalists began doing stories and raising questions about the government’s plan to tackle this.

By mid-2020 we saw an increase in these attacks. Trolls lashed out at women anchors and journalists, threatening them with rape and even murder. Their private accounts were hacked and their pictures and videos leaked. The situation became quite alarming.

The situation became so bad that a group of journalist issued two joint statements that were signed by hundreds of women journalists; unions and organizations in August 2020. They demanded in these statements that immediate steps be taken to end online harassment and protect the journalists from online attacks.

Later a delegation of women journalists also met with the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Human Rights which heard their grievances and promised to take action.

The signatories are still waiting for actions on these promises.

Women journalists do face gender-based violence in different forms – sexual harassment at the workplace, domestic abuse with reference to her job and psychological pressure and abuse.

It has not helped that the news media in Pakistan has been under a lot of strain for several years now due to a financial crisis. And the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 only added to the job losses and financial crisis, and many people have been working without being paid for several months.

The coronavirus pandemic aggravated the situation for the media in general but especially for women journalists – who are already a marginalised section of the profession. They are the first to lose jobs and pay cuts as they are not considered to be main income earners in the families.

For those who are still on job, they have been juggling the workload at home and office – trying to get both jobs done on time. This leads to more work, more stress and less time to relax. Some journalists have found themselves working more from home, as it is thought that they have the luxury of working from home.

The 16 days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence provides a good opportunity to highlight such issues that may not be considered to be violence. However, many women journalists consider gender-pay gaps and job insecurities linked to other violence like bullying and sexual harassment, online and offline harassment.

However, this does not mean that harassment is not an issue. It is one of the biggest concern faced by women in the media. One solution and to begin efforts against different forms of gender-based violence is to have many women in decision-making roles.

Zahid said,“The problem we’re facing is literally like termites, and they’ve already eaten through the industry we’re trying to save. The way forward isn’t to keep fumigating and restoring the existing structures in place, but to disrupt and do away with them in favour of new ones.”

Rizvi said, “Despite a large number of female journalists in the field they don’t want to speak up or stand up to the harasser and chose to keep quiet. The main reason for this is that we have a low number of women in decision-making roles – either because they don’t want to rise to these positions or are stopped from getting there – therefore they don’t have the same strong voice to change the working conditions. Or enforce rules to ensure that women are not harassed in the workplace.”

Luavut Zahid also thinks there is a need for more women in decision making roles especially in the traditional or mainstream media. However, things a bit better in the digital news media.

She said, “An example of this is digital news media organizations, where women are allowed to take the lead and become part of the decision making process. This is a trend around the world. Traditional media maybe failing, but these places are making things work.”

Gender pay gap also needs to be addressed. Rizvi thinks that the inequality in the pay between men and women doing the same amount of work also weakens the women who are generally paid less. This is also a kind of violence that needs to be addressed.

“The pay scale in conventional news rooms and media organization need to be revised. The main reason is that the bosses are generally men and they have control. There are hardly any women bosses in Pakistan. Women need to be financially empowered so they can take decisions.” She said.

It would be helpful if during the 16 days of Activism against Gender-based Violence – that began on November 25, also the International Day Against Violence Against Women and ends on December 10, also the International Human Rights Day – journalists, journalists’ unions and organizations and human rights organizations joined hands to work on solutions to these issues.

The main issues that need to be discussed and explored include harassment especially in the workplace and online, the gender pay gap, more women in decision-making positions and most important attacks online and offline.

About wmc