Image: Pakistani women holding placards during the ‘Aurat March’ or women’s march, for International Women’s Day in Karachi on March 12, 2023. Credit: Rizwan Tabassum / AFP
Every day, faceless online trolls launch attacks against women journalists – not just for doing their jobs, but simply for being women. These journalists and their support networks in South Asia call for more to be done to protect women in media from online violence, writes Olivia Cleal.
It is not uncommon for women journalists in South Asia to wake up and open their social media accounts, only to be hit with a barrage of slurs, attacks and abusive messages.
Just weeks ago, Indian journalist Srishti Jaswal published an article interviewing the partner of a political prisoner, who has been detained for protesting a citizenship law which discriminates against Muslims in India.
Almost immediately, the abuse began.
“I was trolled quite massively… all these far-right influencers associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A lot of anonymous accounts came and threatened me,” said Jaswal.
But when she asked for support from her colleagues, peers, friends and family, nobody stood with her.
“Everyone knows if they support me, they will also be trolled,” she said.
Mounting pressure and polarisation in the South Asia region have led to increased media rights violations in recent years, not least of all affecting women journalists. The International Federation of Journalists reported 19 online attacks against journalists and eight gender-based attacks between May 1, 2022, and April 30, 2023, in its latest South Asia Press Freedom Report.
And the impact on women, media workers, and the journalism industry itself is nothing short of dire.
When Jaswal faced online trolling, she was forced to delete all photos and log out of her Twitter and Instagram accounts to avoid trolls misusing her content even further.
“People are so afraid now, that they don’t have the strength to even offer support,” she said.
“That makes it an even more lonely job and lonely fight, because once these things start getting active, then you can’t do anything.
“The only thing you can do is retreat.”
The kind of harassment that exists in the online space is highly gendered and highly sexualised. Maryam Saeed, the program manager at the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in Pakistan, has researched online trolling of women journalists as part of her PhD studies in the United Kingdom as well as in her position with the DRF.
“The narratives found in online trolling are based on the stereotypes that exist in society against women,” Saeed explained.
“They [the trolls] have this narrative in mind that these women journalists have crossed the social boundary, entering into the male world. They justify the harassment by saying they deserve this because they are doing something that women shouldn’t do. And that’s how disinformation and harassment emerge against them in online spaces.”
The messages they receive online can be as extreme as threats of sexual assault, rape or even death.
Online trolling is a problem for all journalists in South Asia, not just women. But the difference lies in the strength and sheer amount of trolling that women face as opposed to their male counterparts.
Last year, in a show of support for her female colleague who was trolled online, Srishti Jaswal posted a solidarity tweet to stand by and support her. Her male colleagues did the same.
But while her male colleagues went unscathed, Jaswal faced significant abuse online.
“I am a woman, and I’ve seen this quite a lot in my career – that for the same story, a man will not be trolled. But I will be trolled,” she said.
Keeping women in their place
The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) was established in Pakistan in 2012 as an advocacy organisation. What started as a WhatsApp group of just 20 women journalists in Pakistan has now become a tight-knit network of over 150 members, providing support and guidance when fronting harassment and violence online.
“The network provides them with a space where they can discuss those issues,” Saeed said.
“It’s also a space where they can contact each other for professional help.”
The DRF offers support on digital issues, provides legal advice, and delivers psychological assistance to women journalists targeted by online trolls.
The organisation’s Cyber Harassment Helpline has also been operating for six years, the first dedicated 24-hour digital harassment helpline by a non-profit organisation in South Asia. Since then, they have received more than 14,000 calls for help, according to the DRF’s 2022 Annual Report.
In 2022, the DRF received 2,695 new cases, a monthly average of 224 calls. Of those calls, more than half (58.6 per cent) are from women journalists, confirming just how gendered online trolling is.
“Women journalists come with two identities, which makes them more vulnerable in a space which is male-dominated,” she explained.
And those two identities? A journalist, and a woman; and more often than not, it’s the latter identity that is the most targeted.
Anmol Irfan, a young journalist in Pakistan, knows plenty of journalists who have faced extreme trolling online.
“It’s all about their bodies, it’s sexualised, it’s about sexual violence, it’s about physical violence,” she said.
“It’s about keeping women in fear, and controlling them to shut them up.”
Tacit political support
In India, Srishti Jaswal has faced this sexualised trolling first-hand. Most of the comments come from far-right Hindu ideology and government supporters.
“They identify themselves as staunch Hindus or Hindutva supporters,” she explained.
“They’re kept at a good distance (from the BJP)… I believe that’s done because they can use any sort of language they want because officially they are not party members, they’re not the BJP members, but they are affiliated with their ideologies.”
Jaswal said their comments are filled with sexualised insults, comments and threats of rape and death.
“But nothing really happens to them, because they are a party sideline,” she said.
In fact, Jaswal said most of the trolls are followed by leaders of the government, including Prime Minister Modi.
As in Pakistan, online trolling affects women journalists more than men, Jaswal said.
“It’s not like the men aren’t targeted, but the effect on men is far less severe. There is no sexual threat to a man as there is to a woman.”
Censorship with a difference
The effect of online trolling often ends in censorship, but instead of state-led or power-led censorship, it comes from the family of the journalists, or even the journalists themselves.
Anmol Irfan has been freelancing for almost three years since she graduated from university. In that short time, she contributed to a student newspaper, founded a youth magazine, and has written for publications across the world.
But every day, she stops and thinks before she writes and speaks.
“The bio of my magazine said ‘youth-focused, feminist magazine’,” she said.
“I remember having a very long conversation with my mum about how I shouldn’t be using that word. The word ‘feminist’ in Pakistan is seen as a bad word. So she asked: ‘Why are you asking for controversy?’”
Coming from a large family, Irfan worries for the safety of herself and her family and wouldn’t do anything that would put them at risk.
“I’ve self-censored before – something as small as removing the word ‘feminist’ to not looking for work in Pakistan,” she said.
“Because, you know, I’d have a hard time with safety and security. I’ve seen what has happened to other journalists.
“So seeing all of that has really shaped the way I work. I’ll always be careful to do [stories] for smaller publications that might not necessarily catch the eye of Pakistani trolls.”
Srishti Jaswal in India has had a similar experience.
“I face a lot of censorship back home,” she said.
“It took me a good amount of time to tell my parents that this is part and parcel of my job, and it’s going to happen. It took me approximately three years to make my parents understand this thing… but what about the women whose parents don’t understand?”
In India, the concept of “honour” is extremely important for women and their families. So if an online troll targets a woman journalist with sexualised comments, their families will try to censor them in the name of their safety, but also in the name of honour.
“If somebody says something to me, my parents are going to be alarmed, they’re obviously going to tell me that I should not do it (journalism),” she said.
“They’ll say: ‘These men, these trolls, are not going to improve what they’re going to think about your honour, but at least you can think about your honour. So you should just stay silent’.”
“In the case of men, their parents don’t say anything… to a large extent, it’s also considered men can take care of themselves. It’s women who need help.”
The impact: ‘Detrimental effect’
What this does for journalism in South Asia is cause for concern, not just for the quality of journalism, but also for the well-being of journalists, particularly women.
“The impact is definitely very distressing – it’s emotionally distressing,” Saeed from the DRF said.
“Although social media has provided them with this access where they can communicate with their audience, they can share their stories, they can reach out to a wider user base, at the same time it comes with a lot of harassment and trolling.”
“And sometimes it is so personal and so demotivating, they curtail their usage of social media. The more visible you are as a woman journalist, the more susceptible you are to online trolling,” Saeed said.
“Considering we are talking about journalism in Pakistan, which is already a male-dominated society, when you receive backlash, which is so intense, so discriminatory, so vile… it becomes very difficult to thrive in a conservative and religious country.”
In her work with the DRF, Maryam Saeed has seen countless women journalists suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues due to being victims of online trolling.
And as a result, when it gets too much, women journalists may choose to leave the profession altogether.
There have been previous efforts in Pakistan to stand up for women journalists’ protection and safety online. On August 12, 2020, 165 prominent Pakistani journalists, including Mehmal Sarfaraz, Reema Omer and Benazir Shah, created and signed a petition to hold trolls to account.
The same year, a social media campaign using the hashtag #IStandWithWomenJournalists erupted online in an attempt to put pressure on the government to better protect women journalists.
But it was the same government, the Imran Khan-led PTI government that allowed for this harassment to proliferate online. A September 2020 report from the Coalition for Women in Journalism found most online violence against women journalists followed their reporting on alleged failings by the PTI and Imran Khan.
Saeed said that even with the new government in Pakistan, and the arrest of Imran Khan in May 2023, women journalists still have to “think before writing” on social media to avoid online trolling.
“They have to think – how will this political party and their followers react to what we say?” Saeed said.
“This has a detrimental effect.”
Amidst the increasing online harassment against women journalists in Pakistan, the DRF continues to support women journalists every step of the way.
“I’ve seen how people have made this bond, where if they have any questions – professional or personal – it’s a space where they feel comfortable,” Maryam said.
“It’s really nice to see people helping each other out as well. Over the years, we’ve built trust. We’ve built that community where women are more aware of their digital rights.”
Olivia Cleal is a postgraduate media student at the University of Sydney, Australia, and a current Intern with the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific.