Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on Pakistani authorities to take immediate action to stop online harassment against female journalists that puts their professional duties and lives at risk.
The call from the Paris-based advocacy group on August 19 came in response to a joint statement signed by some 50 women journalists in Pakistan condemning a "well-defined and coordinated campaign" of harassment on social media, including abusive language and threats of violence.
"We regard the highest levels of the Pakistani government as either responsible or complicit in these recent cyberharassment campaigns against certain women journalists who don’t toe the official line," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
"This tactic, which clearly aims to intimidate all government critics, is a flagrant violation of article 19A of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s constitution. We call on Prime Minister Imran Khan to ensure that this unacceptable use of hate speech is brought to a stop," he said.
The joint statement, issued on August 12, outlined online social media harassment of women journalists and commentators, alleging that the attacks are "instigated by government officials" and then amplified by pro-government Twitter accounts and trolls.
"The target of these attacks are women with differing viewpoints and those whose reports have been critical of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s government, and more specifically its handling of the coronavirus pandemic," the statement said.
Types of harassment include threats of rape and physical violence, releasing personal details of women journalists and analysts, and gender-based slurs. The online-bullying also seeks to discredit and intimidate journalists, referring to them as peddlers of "fake news" and an "enemy of the people."
"These have the potential to incite violence and lead to hate crimes, putting our physical safety at risk," the journalists wrote.
Women in the media, especially those on social-media platforms, are now reportedly finding it untenable to engage on social media, depriving them of their right to free speech and providing information to the public.
"Many now self-censor, refrain from sharing information, giving their opinion or actively engaging online," the statement said.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
In 2019, four journalists and bloggers were killed in connection with their reporting.
Among them was Arooj Iqbal, who was shot dead in Lahore in November in a case that has gone unpunished.
Iqbal wanted to be the first woman journalist to launch her own newspaper in Pakistan, RSF said.