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Threats to Pakistan’s Women Journalists

By Kiran Nazish

 

 

In January 2015, I had just returned to Islamabad from assignments abroad and was investigating a story involving the influence of intelligence agencies on civilian government. After shuttling around for months meeting sources, a minister asked me to drop the story; I would face “severe consequences” if I did not. That was followed by calls telling me I was being watched. People I spoke with were later interrogated about their meetings with me. The stress that followed moved me into silence.

I feared stepping out of home, answering the phone, or calling the electrician to fix the lamp in my living room. I grew suspicious of neighbors, cab drivers and friends. I wasn’t even sure who to fear most: the minister who told me to drop the story? Perhaps the intelligence officials who harassed me outside Mir Ali — a town in North Waziristan where Pakistani military had been carrying out Zarb-e-Azb, its operation against terrorists? Or maybe I should be most scared of working in Balochistan, where my sources were threatened following my visits if they spoke to journalists?

I did not, however, fear my own life. Women journalists do not face such dangers in Pakistan, I told myself. (Except my old companion and activist Sabeen Mehmud, who got killed in a busy street in Karachi, shot by armed men, while all this was going on.)

That doesn’t mean that female reporters don’t receive threats in Pakistan. The Committee to Protect Journalists keeps watch on harassment and exile of journalists. Of the 56 journalists that CPJ lists as having been killed in Pakistan since 1992, 100 percent are male targets, but that doesn’t reflect the full story. From my own experience and reporting, I’ve found that female journalists have so effectively been intimidated that their cases don’t make it to local or international public reports.

“Nobody ever reports it,” says one female colleague, who I’ll call Sarah, who was sexually harassed by an intelligence officer and intimidated into dropping the story she was investigating. “Even if my life is in danger, publicizing these threats will make my family’s life hell.” After various incidents, Sarah suffered severe depression. Within a month she had to leave the country, and is now living in exile with extended family in the West.

One prominent obstacle in getting female reporters to talk about their cases has been shame. Women journalists who speak out about their difficulties are publicly humiliated, harassed by supporters of politicians and the establishment. Their families and colleagues often suffer along with them.

Lubna Thomas Benjamin says she felt greatly intimidated while reporting on Rimsha Masih, a young teenage Christian girl who faced the death penalty under blasphemy law. Lubna, who comes from a Christian minority background, is now in exile in the United States. Shaista Wahidi, a prominent morning show host at GEO TV, had to flee the country immediately after one of her programs was accused of blasphemic content. Sana Mirza, a GEO News reporter, was harassed by a political mob of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters while reporting on their rally in Lahore, and Maria Memon, a GEO News anchor, was showered with sticks and bottles while covering a political rally of the group in another city.

“No one is accountable when a politically or religiously driven mob attacks women reporters,” one TV female reporter told me.

These are often portrayed as isolated incidents, but they have consistently discouraged women journalists from working in the field. I spoke with more than a dozen female colleagues who have faced harassment. Some received private threats. Some were threatened by right wing Islamist groups, while others feared politicians who invited them to private dinners and then requested sexual favors. Some faced threats from police and mafia alike, or were blackmailed. All of them complained about the irresponsible responses from their editors and colleagues. When one woman who covered crime for The News received threats from a politically-driven mafia in Karachi, her editor and colleagues told her: “It’s your fault. You’re too aggressive… Drop the story.”

Saba Eitizaz, Urdu correspondent for the BBC, had many traumatic encounters. When she started covering Balochistan, she was given clear instructions by intelligence officers about what she could and could not cover: “If you report on military activity, you will be considered a threat.” She was reminded of the incident of a white foreign white journalist, Carlotta Gall, The New York Times reporter who was punched in the face in her hotel room in Quetta. “If it could happen to her, it could happen to you,” the intelligence officer would tell Saba.

Saba often got calls from Military Intelligence on her office number, and frequently encountered cars parked outside her house, watching her. Her driver was once beaten up, and she has had multiple interrogations. “These incidents constantly remind me that I should be afraid. There is someone watching me, chasing me,” Saba said.

She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and her marriage almost broke up. When she considered moving to another country, Saba was followed outside the consulate by intelligence officers who once again reminded her of her limitations. Saba confesses it has affected her work. “We feel so ashamed of sharing our trauma, but we constantly live in it. And it constantly transforms the stories we cover,” she says.

Kiran Nazish (@kirannazish) is an independent journalist from Pakistan who now reports from Iraq.

.......Courtsey: Nework times