Abusive media reflects the social reality

—Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Women have always been easy targets in any circumstances. Any event or organization linked to women or women’s rights has always been vulnerable to attacks.With social media, attacks have taken on a different momentum and become more powerful due to extensive reach of this media.

Apart from the momentum, reach and impact of social media the other interesting aspect is that it is very easy to manipulate. It has become extremely easy to created and spread fake content and spread vicious fake news faster. All one needs: a device; internet; a social media accountand some easily downloadable free apps.

And as technology is getting better, the skills of criminals are also improving. It has become extremely easy to develop fake content – even deep fake videos – and reach a large number of people in a shorter time span.

It is quite alarming how easy it has become to make fake videos and this is what happened in Pakistan recently, which if not stopped at the right time would have had fatal consequences.

A fake video of an event organized by Aurat (Woman)Marchwas circulated after March 8 (International Women’s Day) is a good example of this. Every year Aurat March and all its events across the country are criticised.And these attacks are increasing every yearboth online offline.

This year saw a dangerous turnto events when a video of the Aurat March was widely circulated on social media. The video showed participants of the Aurat Marchsaying blasphemous words. The video was obviously fake with a voice over made to seem as if the Aurat March participants were raising controversial slogans.

The videoquickly spread across social media and soon threats were being hurled not only at the participants seen in the video but also the organizers of the event.

Fortunately, the real video was immediately shared to counter this. And the organizers of Aurat March released a statement in which they clearly said, “These lies and the outrageous allegations of blasphemous slogans and banners in particular have been definitively debunked many times over.”

A bad situation was averted by timely intervention of many people on social media who shared the original video so many times that the fake got lost in cyberspace.

However, as powerful as social media has become we cannot write off traditional media just yet. The reason for this is that local and regional media – print and broadcast – has reach to the masses in a language they understand.

Therefore, anything published in the local media also has a lot of impact and can be quite damaging as well.

Ummat – a local Urdu newspaper – recently published a lead headline in which an extremely derogative and abusive word was used against the organiser – mostly women – of Aurat March. This headline was shocking and extremely alarming for many in the media, and many journalists especially men protested against this abuse.

Senior journalists like Mazhar Abbas, Wusutullah and Mubashir Zaidi condemned Ummat openly on TV for using such base language, saying that journalism is a decent profession that follows strict ethics.

Apart from journalists, journalist unions – PFUJ & KUJ – issued statements condemning Ummat for disgracing the profession of media and for disregarding ethics.

However, the use of abusive language by the media is not surprising now as it bound to happen. A few years ago people began using abusive language and threatened others on social media. Most people ignored this, as they didn’t think social media was permanent and a trend. Also at that time the number of social media users was also very low.

But as time passed abuse and threats on social media became a norm. Many people still ignored this and opted to block the abusers online. Many journalists objected to this new trend at the time, warning that this would spread if not stopped. This warning went unheeded.

Fast forward and we see an extremely abusive social media, where people openly threaten others for having different opinions. And thenUmmat’s headline brought us full circle on abuse against women in the media.

We often talk about online and offline attacks against women journalists. And now mainstream media using abusive language against women has once again brought abuse and media in focus.

Pakistani journalist Wajiha Naz Soharwardi, who is currently affiliated with Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, while commenting on the Ummat headline said,“In my view, the role of the gatekeeper becomes very important while covering such sensitive topics, especially in our country where literacy rate is low.”

Soharwardi thinks that if a journalist uses abusive language and negativity, the editor will always take it out. “There is a hope that when such articles/news go through the seniors before it is published, s/he will filter out such negative factors. But the problems are exacerbated, when negative thinking and ideology is embedded in the seniors.”

She thinks that when a person reaches a senior level they should be more careful and usually act as the final filter before the content is released to the public. However, she said if that person gives more importance to business than journalism then we see a degradation in the profession.

“In our country, there are some media outlets where ethics of journalism are completely neglected while covering news and articles about women.And they are sensationalised for clickbait.” Soharwardi said, “The recent “Ummat” news is one of the examples. As the circulation of the newspaper has been declining day by day for the last few months, attempts have been made to increase its circulation through various reward schemes. This news may also be a link in the same chain, as bad publicity is still publicity. But in all this we lose the essence of journalism.”

Things are headed in the wrong way if they are not stopped now. However, Pakistan is not the only country that faces gender-specific issues. Other countries also face have similar issues.

Sri Lanka has a lot of very brave and vocal women journalists, who have covered many dangerous stories especially on war and terrorism. However, the situation seems to be the same when it comes to media reporting on women stories. Niranjani Roland a freelance journalist based in Sri Lanka speaks about the situation in her country.

“In Sri Lanka, both mainstream media and social media use abusive and degrading language and reinforce stereotypes when referring to women. It is extremely problematic. The use of language and images try to distort context, hence inauthentic, and also attempts racial profiling. For example, when news relates to women or girls, headlines deliberately refer to their gender like “Woman arrested for selling drugs or illicit alcohol.” Niranjani Roland.“Emphasis falls on the word woman, not the act of selling drugs or illicit liquor. Some headings describe women as “prostitutes” not “sex workers”.”

Sensationalism seems to be a common factor in all these countries, and this can be seen in Pakistani media. Victim blaming and shaming is also prevalent in the media.

Niranjani said commenting on the Sri Lankan media, “Sometimes they sensationalize incidents related to violence against women, romanticize, give big spins and create untruthful accounts of real incidents in a way that women are degraded. This is a highly prevalent practice when reporting on rape and sexual harassment. Often women are blamed for their attire and media trials infer that ” women asked to be raped/ sexually harassed.” The portrayals are so flawed that women are regularly shown as “asking for it”.”

She added, “Recently, there was highly sensational reporting around a young woman murdered by her lover, a police officer, who committed suicide soon afterwards. The photos of the police officer and the woman were splashed by both mainstream and social media. The dead woman also faced a media trial as she was condemned for having a love affair with a married man. There was no apportioning of blame to the man for infidelity. The morality of his actions was hardly discussed. The media also consistently portray women as sexual objects. They are frequently objectified with questionable use of images that are often irrelevant to story content.”

Women in Bangladesh also face many problems, similar to Pakistan. Reneka Ahmed Antu – a feminist youth advocate and Youth Administrator at The Brave Girls – said while speaking about slangs used in the South Asia region that most slangs and abusive words revolve around women even if they are hurled at men.

“If we analyse South Asian slangs, we can clearly see that all are somehow either objectifying the woman figure or outraging modesty. No matter the person who is being abused is male or female, the slang is in itself representing a feminine concept.” Reneka said.

She added, “This linguistic practice undoubtedly helps gender exploitation. In South Asia many grammars [of different languages] do not have a masculine word for ‘sati’ (means virgin woman). In this region for such linguistic practice, man’s virginity somehow “visualize” untarnished for a lifetime, and women remain easily “destroyable”. Women are often being labelled with derogatory words “s***” for raising their voices for their rights as such linguistic traits categorise “dignity less women”.

Reneka further said, “Verbal attacks are the easiest and most impactful. In our context, no woman wants to be considered as a person of questionable character. Therefore, stopping any revolutionist woman’s aura is way too easy if her aura can be interpreted as a “non- dignified person”.”

And that “The exploitation against women remains justified because linguistic practices give males a superior position and women’s “dignity” is easily “destroyable”. That’s why rape victims become their family’s shame rather the rapist. But in other crimes like stealing, the thief become their family’s shame, not the victims.”

Nepalese journalist Dikshya Awasthi Timilsina who works for Radio Nepal as a children’s program presenter named ‘Balbatika’ explained the stereotyping and objectifying of women which sometimes shifted the focus of the story from the actual issue or crime.

“The victim blaming culture and stereotyping has become pervasive across the region; Nepal is not an exception. Nepali media outlets are over represented by male journalists causing to fail to follow ethical practices on covering women’s issues.” Dikshya said.“There are several stories: a rape case earlier this year in Kathmandu, where reporters commented freely on the women’s body, her personal life, relationships, her decision to drink with male friends, and other issues that distracted from the crime.”

Speaking on how sexual violence stories are treated by the media, Dikshya said that sensationalism is added to the headlines, as well as the images – this takes the attention from the perpetrator.

She added, “While papers andTV coverage about sexual assault is also problematic. They cover issues with sensational headlines, moreover using passive sentences placing the actor in the background and the victim in the foreground aiding the perpetrator to conveniently disappear from the narrative.”

“In the extreme, victims are portrayed as helpless with ripped clothes, looming hands, a shadow, or a palm clasping their mouths shut, here the perpetrator is absent.” Dikshya emphasised.

It seems that the media in the region as a whole, and countries separately, lack the skills to do sensitive journalism especially when the news is about a woman. It lacks the ability to look beyond the gender when the peg is a woman even if it is a crime committed against her.

This is not surprising as the media is an extension of the society and is likely to absorb the traits of the majority. So it is important to train all media workers across different departments -including the human resources – in gender sensitivity, media ethics and professionalism if we want to have quality media.

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