Fighting for one’s right to write and speak

—by Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Pakistani media has more women working in different roles as never before – after the broadcast media came on the scene more than two decades ago – and it has brought a different angle to stories that were probably only left to women specific pages.

This is not to say that women have confine themselves to the women pages. Not at all, women are working on different beats that were at one time considered to be a male-oriented. They have taken on tasks that were considered too manly and proved that they can do these stories as well as their male colleagues.

However, with the entry of such large number of women in the media, the empowerment of women is lagging behind. Hence, we have seen that the narrative has mostly been from one gender’s viewpoint.

Things began changing when women began taking over as anchors and hosts of serious time slots and doing shows on other topics that were at a time considered to be a male dominated.

These women were fighting a double battle one of their competence and ability to get the job done as well, if not better, than it was done before. And the battle for freedom of media and freedom of expression for the women journalists.

Pakistan’s journalists have been fighting for several decades for freedom of media and freedom of expression – which they have achieved and maintained to some extent after a lot of struggle from the media fraternity.

In this struggle, Pakistani journalists have faced persecution even at the hands of dictators to maintain the integrity of the media.

There was a time when Pakistani journalists pushed back at the pressure from the dictator and used innovative ways to protest the pressure. Instead of succumbing to yellow journalism, journalists found ways to leave huge blanks in the newspaper’s pages as a form of protest.

If they were forced to fill in these, they resorted to filling in these spaces with content that didn’t help the propaganda that was being pushed by using interesting headlines, text and pictures.

This struggle continued across the media fraternity and although women journalists were less in number as compared to the men, they managed to make their presence known as they joined ranks in protests and rallies as the media protested against attempts to gag it.

They were a vocal and strong lot of women they would stand up against anyone to protect the media right to freedom and expression.

Even so many decades later, the media faces attempts to usurp its freedom and it right to freedom of expression.

It is also interesting to note here that Pakistan has seen a rise of attacks against women journalists which has never seen before. These attacks began back in 2014 when women journalists were attack in political rallies.

The internet has only added to the situation.As social media became popular these attacks transferred online, becoming more vicious and much more dangerous.

On one hand it has created more space for journalists to speak up, it has also opened another frontier for the media to defend it freedom.

Online or Cyber-attacks are vicious and dangerous, and are more targeted targeting an individual. These are more dangerous as it is one person against literally an army of trolls attacking in different ways.

Women are easy target in patriarchal societies and the same concept applies online – women journalists are targeting. They are not only criticised for their opinions and their work but the attacks become personal as their personal data is leaked and misused by the trolls.

Pictures are taken from private social media accounts and spread to different social media platforms putting emotional and psychological pressure on the person attacked.

Interestingly, this has not scared women journalists.

Instead we have seen such tactics invigorate the fight that women journalists in Pakistanare fighting and uniting them to fight back.

As we have seen earlier this year women journalists united against online attacks which resulted in two joint statements signed by hundreds of women journalists and supported by different journalists’ organizations. These were then presented to a standing committee of the National Assembly.

The women journalists made it clear that such online attacks would not stop them from speaking up and doing their job. They will continue to work and fight for the press freedom in Pakistan that not only means media freedom but freedom of expression. But the women journalists are more vulnerable.

“Press freedom in Pakistan is a joke. As a journalist, one is not even free to write or report facts and share their opinions without giving it a second thought. As a woman journalist, you face an added layer of vulnerability.”Said Rabia Mushtaq, freelance journalist and researcher.

Over the years, journalists have learned that press freedom and freedom of expression comes at a price. And women journalists have to make sure that they can report without fear of a backlash and therefore have sometimes been advised to share a by-line or avoid it completely, allowing someone else to take credit for their hard work. And often not giving one’sby-line is part of self-censorship.

“The fear multiplies and one resorts to self-censorship. By-lines are avoided to ensure one’s safety. Keeping a low profile online is something I’ve observed a lot and a practice that I’ve also personally adapted to avoid any kind of retaliation, instead of inviting threats and risks to my safety.” She adds.

“While one may want to write and report certain stories as part of their job, but the various laws and labels used to persecute and malign journalists, especially women journalists, make it impossible to exercise one’s right to free speech and expression. As a Pakistani journalist, one must know that no story is worth your life and safety.” She concludes.

Fatima Saleem Sports presenter, Geo News andco-founder of Go Girl Pakistan – an organization that believes in empowering women – privileged or under privileged through sports.

She has been a sports journalist for more than a decade and has proved herself to be good at her job despite having young children. She has travelled and reported from outstation leaving her child behind, as she has a work to do.

Despite many issues and hurdles, Fatima Saleem is a name that one identifies with Pakistani sports journalism and she has faced many issues that many others face in the field.

“Pakistan has made progress when it comes to women in media, gradually we are recognizing women rights to express themselves. But we still have a long way to go, women are not being provided equal opportunities or pay.”

Speaking about freedom of expression of women in journalism, Saleem said, “We see women in sports and politics with a voice but it’s still hard for them to enter the areas that are dominated by men. Women are still ridiculed for wearing certain clothes; for saying what they feel like without the moral police coming on to the them. We love the new term ‘women empowerment’ but we need to ask ourselves are we letting our women be who they want to be? Or forcing them to be someone they are not just to please the audience.”

She stresses that men need to see women as professionals doing a job just like them and stop objectifying them. “I once overheard a male colleague complaining that ‘there is not even a single good looking girl in the cricket team’.That’s exactly what’s wrong, why are women beingjudged on their beauty? Why not their brains? Why not their capability to play a sport better than men?”

Commenting on the struggle of women to prove themselves as professionals, she said, “This is not a war of the sexes, I believe men and women should be on the field or in the boardrooms making big decisions together. It’s about equality!! That is what progress looks like.”

Najia Ashar – broadcast journalist with 18 years of experience, founder ofGlobal Neighbourhood for Media Innovation(GNMI) a platform for media professionals that promotes innovation, excellence and leadership and founder & CEO Media Baithak – commenting on the issues faced by women journalists including attempts to silence opinions said.

“Conservatives hate and fear the voices of women which is why they are victims of gender based censorship. As it is the media is predominately male oriented and the women journalists have to work harder for their voices not only to be heard, but also taken seriously.” Ashar said.

She stressed on the importance of women standing their ground despite all the pressures. “In the gender hierarchy of a patriarchal society and media, women have always been the second choice. And now that they are proving themselves in the field and making a noise, this is creating issues as it is rippling the status quo.”

Commenting on the role of women who have reach decision making roles she says they are trying to make a difference and succeeding in some areas. It is a slow process as they first they have to create a space that is accommodating and then add their voices to the others and make an impact so that their voices don’t get lost.

It is sad but women seem to be facing the same issues in media all over the world. Even in societies that are more democratic and where women seem to be living with more rights have the same issues.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti – journalist, media trainer & lawyer and executive director of Center for Investigative Reporting Sri Lanka– is a vocal voice in the media not only in Sri Lanka but also in the region.

She has been working in the media for more than two decades and she has done stories for which she has ventured into the most dangerous regions of her country during the war. She has done a good job as well as any other journalist, but she even her journey was not an easy one. She also had to do double the work like any other woman in any profession has to.

Handunnetti says there are many issues faced by women in the media that affects their ability to be stronger in their narrative. “There are so many issues like objectification and portrayal of women; lack of representation in numbers and management;accommodation of care duties in a professional setting;greater job insecurity; sexual harassment and lack of institutional mechanisms.”

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