Journalists Facing Digital Threats In Pakistan

Journalists Facing Digital Threats In Pakistan
Pakistan is the center of attention of the world when it comes to terrorism, extremism and human rights violations, but at the same time, this South Asian country is also considered the most dangerous for journalists. Most of the journalists associated with the Pakistani media face a whole host of obstacles in the way of fulfilling their professional duties, ranging from low salaries, lack of professional facilities, and security concerns.

In this era, digital security is also becoming a growing problem. Journalists working in Balochistan face physical insecurity as well as digital security issues.

Journalist Zafarullah Achakzai, who was arrested from Quetta for allegedly publishing objectionable content on social media in 2017, was handed over to FIA, is once such instant.

Zafarullah Achakzai was arrested from his residence in Quetta on June 25, 2017. He is the chief reporter of Qudrat newspaper and the son of the owner of the newspaper.

Khalil Ahmed, the then president of the Balochistan Union of Journalists, said that apart from plainclothes officials, security forces went to his house to arrest him. A joint meeting of Balochistan Union of Journalists and other journalistic organizations was held at Quetta Press Club against his arrest.

Khalil Ahmad said that it was agreed in the meeting that the method adopted to arrest the journalist was not in accordance with the law. He said that methods used to arrest terrorists were adopted for his arrest.

He alleged that not only was the sanctity of the home violated, but other members of the journalist's family were also harassed. He said that the manner in which the journalist was arrested was condemned by journalistic organizations.

Khalil Ahmad said that if the journalist was arrested according to the procedure given in the law, he would not have any objection.

Zafar Achakzai is not the only journalist who has been arrested over online posts in Balochistan province, Peer Muhammad Kakar, a senior journalist from the Loralai district of Balochistan was also arrested for his critical posts this year.

Though, Zafar Achakzai was honorably acquitted by the Quetta court in 2019, Peer Muhammad Kakar is still fighting his case.

Activists for the rights of journalists in Pakistan have expressed their concern about the growing number of online security threats for journalists in the country, and have demanded that the government include the issue of online security in the proposed bill on the protection of journalists.

This demand came after a review report released by the Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan, which stated that a large number of journalists in the country are facing harassment, as online threats have increased their sense of insecurity.

According to a survey conducted in the country for the report, 68 percent of journalists faced insecurity online. The report titled Digital Insecurity of Journalists included the opinions of several journalists from across the country.

The report states that Pakistani journalists face various threats on the Internet, including harassment, hacking of their online accounts, data theft and other forms of harassment.

Afzal Butt, president of Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said in a statement that his organization has received complaints from 52 journalists over a period of time, indicating various online threats they face.

"It is alarming that such cases are happening with such a large number of journalists. It means that there are some circles within Pakistan who are against the freedom of the press, we all have to stand together against this and the security of journalists must be ensured," he said.

In the report, the United Nations Organization for Science, Culture and Education (UNESCO) said that journalists who have been killed around the world in recent years were easily targeted because online tools made it possible to reach them.

Nighat Dad, head of the Digital Rights Foundation, says that journalists can improve their security in various ways. "When working online, make your passwords strong and change them often, and don't use one password for all accounts, as well as protect your resources. If they compromise your online security, they can also jeopardize the security of their sources," she said.

Nighat Dad said that it is also the responsibility of the government to include mechanisms to ensure protection from online threats in the proposed bill on protection of journalists.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization of journalists, 38 percent of journalists killed in the last two decades were threatened on social media before they were killed.

Officials in the Government of Pakistan have expressed their commitment to ensure the safety of journalists in the country and the government says that the concerns of the journalist community will be taken into account in the proposed bill on the protection of journalists.

Journalists reporting on corruption, the political beat and crime face more dangerous situations than other journalists. Pakistan is among the most dangerous countries in the world for the journalism profession, and journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in Pakistan, according to the International Federation of Journalists.

On the other hand, media organizations and newspapers cannot provide adequate protection, training and security to journalists and freelancers due to limited resources. The issue of protection of more journalists and the impunity of criminals who commit crimes against them also requires urgent attention of the government to a large extent. Urgent and effective legislation for the protection of journalists is the need of the hour because there is no law related to the protection of journalists in Pakistan, said Salman Ashraf, former President of Balochistan Union of Journalists.

“Many investigative journalism operations would not be possible without confidential sources or whistle blowers. Such sources may require anonymity to protect against physical, economic, or professional retaliation for providing information in the public interest. Journalists worldwide have established ethical obligations not to reveal the identity of their confidential sources. There is also a strong legal tradition of protecting sources internationally, in recognition of the important function that these confidential sources play in facilitating "watchdog" or "accountable" journalism. In addition to impeding the free flow of information, forcing sources to disclose affects freedom of expression and freedom of the media,” he added.

Digital security is a primary concern for independent journalists. According to the Perugia Principles for Journalists Working with Whistleblowers in the Digital Age, the aim is to establish a set of best practices for dealing with confidential sources in a digital surveillance environment.

“Protect your sources. Defend their right to anonymity when requested. Provide secure ways for sources to make “first contact” with you. Help potential whistleblowers by publicizing ways to contact you, while highlighting anonymous and encrypted channels and the risks associated with each. Assess the possible consequences for the whistleblower to speak to you, explain the potential risks of digital exposure to your source or the whistleblower,” Shahbaz Ali, Digital expert says.

“Take responsibility for your digital defenses and use encryption. Determine the biggest risks you and your sources face, and what specific steps you need to take to protect both of you,” Shahbaz suggests.

He said, securely delete data provided by sources to protect confidential sources, in accordance with ethical, legal and owner obligations. Make sure any digital Dropbox provides a good level of security for confidential sources and whistleblowers, and for high-risk content, anonymity. Understand national, regional and international legal and regulatory frameworks for the protection of confidential sources and whistleblowers.

“Online harassment of journalists takes many forms, from cyberstalking and DDoS attacks to doxxing and online sexual harassment. Cyberstalking is online harassment and intimidation through text messages, phone calls, or social media,” Ali Raza, working for the protection of digital rights in Quetta says.

“Be careful with the hashtags you use on social media, to avoid warning of coordinated troll attacks on specific issues. Don't share your live location data on social media — when you leave the scene or finish your reporting, it's safe to share where you were,” he added.

Ali Raza says that when threats become clear, share them with your colleagues, editor, or management, and work with them to put procedures in place to ensure your safety. “Give yourself time to get over the emotional stress of what you're feeling—talk to friends, colleagues, or a professional who can help you.”

He said that consider reporting the threat or attack to the platform it was sent to, especially if it clearly violates the Terms of Service or Code of Conduct. Encourage your media organization to establish a protocol for educating staff about and dealing with harassment.

“Journalists who are particularly vulnerable to surveillance should follow best practices and implement simple information security protocols that will protect against unauthorized access to private communications,” he added.

“Take steps to secure your devices and your data before any possible detention or arrest. This can reduce the possibility of others accessing information about you and your sources. Know what data, including documents and photos, is stored on your devices and where it is located,” he said.

“Remove data that puts you at risk. Be aware that authorities or criminal groups with sophisticated technology capabilities may still be able to recover deleted content. Clear your browsing history regularly, and log out of all your accounts regularly”, Raza advised.

Raza added that it is important for journalists to limit people's access to content in their social media accounts. Regularly review all accounts, especially email and social media content. “Know what information may put you or others at risk.”