Journalism Is Not A Crime: The Harassment Of Gharidah Farooqi

Journalism Is Not A Crime: The Harassment Of Gharidah Farooqi
When Gharidah Farooqi interviews a male politician for television, she does research and plans out her questions, as any journalist would. She is professional, well-dressed and asks pertinent follow-up questions.

But every move she makes, every gesture and expression, is scrutinized by mobs of observers online. Everything — the clothing she wears, the questions she asks while interviewing someone — is fuel for an avalanche of mostly anonymous online abuse that for years has ridiculed her and her work.

“I see my male counterparts — they’re also abused, but not abused for their bodies, their genital parts,” she said. “If they’re attacked, they’re just targeted for their political views. When a woman is attacked, she’s attacked about her body parts.”

The ordeal of Farooqi, who covers politics and national news for News One in Pakistan, exemplifies a global epidemic of online harassment whose costs go well beyond the grief and humiliation suffered by its victims. The voices of thousands of women journalists worldwide have been muffled and, in some cases, stolen entirely as they struggle to conduct interviews, attend public events and keep their jobs in the face of relentless online smear campaigns.

Stories that might have been told — or perspectives that might have been shared — stay untold and unshared. The pattern of abuse is remarkably consistent, no matter the continent or country where the journalists operate.
Online violence against women journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally

Farooqi says she’s been harassed, stalked and threatened with rape and murder. Faked images of her have appeared repeatedly on pornographic websites and across social media. Some depict her holding a penis in the place of her microphone. Others purport to show her naked or having sex. Similar accounts of abuse are heard from women journalists throughout the world.

A survey of 714 women journalists in 215 countries for a 2021 report by the nonprofit, Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found that nearly 3 of 4 said they had suffered online abuse in their work. And nearly 4 of 10 said they became less visible as a result — losing airtime, bylines or professional opportunities. The ICFJ-UNESCO survey notes that it was not a random sampling method, so the survey results may not be representative of all female journalists.

“Online violence against women journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally,” the report declared. “It aids and abets impunity for crimes against journalists, including physical assault and murder. It is designed to silence, humiliate, and discredit. It inflicts very real psychological injury, chills public interest journalism, kills women’s careers and deprives society of important voices and perspectives.”

In many countries, women who are targeted in these campaigns are doing some of the most crucial journalistic work in their regions: investigating powerful cultural leaders, exposing government wrongdoing and revealing corruption. Many who are targeted report on the internet itself and how it is being used to bolster extremists.

Social media platforms that optimize for engagement and a media landscape that rewards outrage and hyperbole fuel digital attacks. Online abusers manufacture controversy about specific women, stalking and harassing them and their families. Time and again, research shows, the news organizations that employ women journalists who are under assault turn against them, depriving them of career opportunities and driving them from the profession.

Farooqi dealt with an especially bad attack in 2019, after she tweeted a news story reporting that the man who gunned down 51 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand — and live-streamed the attack on Facebook — had visited Pakistan the year before.

The internet erupted with allegations that Farooqi was trying to malign Pakistan by unfairly linking it with a terrorist attack thousands of miles away. People online called for her abduction, rape and murder. In response, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, the Digital Rights Foundation, the Freedom Network and Amnesty International all issued statements of support for Farooqi.

The onslaught of harassment became so unrelenting and the threats so constant that for nearly four months, Farooqi rarely left her house, skipping trips to shop or visit friends. She left her house only to travel to and from the office. Each time she stepped out of a car, she nervously scanned her surroundings to see if anyone appeared to be watching her too intently.

Online attacks are amplified in mainstream news coverage. In October, former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan was asked about Farooqi while speaking to a delegation from Pakistan’s National Press Club and the Rawalpindi Islamabad Union of Journalists. Khan responded, “If she would invade male-dominated spaces, then she is bound to be harassed.”

Nine years of online abuse

Farooqi’s troubles began in 2014 when she began covering the Pakistani politician Imran Khan and the rise of the political party he founded, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice. Khan, who would become prime minister four years later, showed a rare knack for exploiting Twitter.

Pakistan is a particularly hostile environment for women journalists. Only 5 percent of journalists in the country are women, according to the Digital Rights Foundation, a press freedom group, and Pakistan is the second-most-hazardous country for journalists in general, according to the Press Freedom Index.

When Khan took to the streets that summer to lead a long march against the government, Farooqi was thrust into the online spotlight. She did extensive interviews with members of Khan’s party and with ordinary voters, as well. She reported on the rallies and marches, and more and more people began following her work.

“Not many women journalists were out there. I was perhaps the only [woman] journalist out covering that political protest,” she recalled.

That national attention triggered the first, relentless wave of online abuse, largely from supporters of Khan’s political party, some of whom were party members. They instigated an aggressive campaign to discredit her, she said.

People began taking photos of her interviewing powerful political leaders and altering them to make them profane or pornographic. People began accusing her of fabricating stories, of being dishonest and biased, of abusing children and betraying the country. They said she was in journalism only so that she could have sex with powerful men and become famous. The Digital Rights Foundation condemned the abuse.

“Farooqi was facing harassment mainly because she was a journalist, but the kind of engendered harassment she was facing was because she was a woman,” Nighat Dad, a Pakistani lawyer who heads the DRF, said in a statement. “It is highly condemnable that women journalists are frequently subjected to online violence and rape threats, which affect their ability to conduct unbiased journalism, and are tools for their self-censorship, and to silence them.”

Said Farooqi of the abuse: “I tried to ignore it, but it kept worsening and worsening, and there was no stop to it.”

In 2016, Zartaj Gul Wazir, a female political leader in Khan’s party, recorded a video in which she falsely accused Farooqi of having affairs with certain politicians to further her career. She posted it across social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The video remains online to this day.

At times, Farooqi has tried to seek legal recourse against her online attackers. She filed a report with the cybercrime wing of the FIA, Pakistan’s federal investigation agency. The complaint went nowhere, as did subsequent complaints, she said.

In 2018, when Khan was elected prime minister and his political party gained more power, the attacks on Farooqi intensified. With Khan’s party in control, she said, seeking help from the authorities became an even more fruitless pursuit. Meanwhile, the groups attacking her became more powerful.
Farooqi says she’s been harassed, stalked and threatened with rape and murder for her reporting

Farooqi wrote to Khan and the opposition leader in Parliament seeking help, she said. She wrote to the Pakistani Senate and informed members about the threats and harassment, but the abuse never stopped.

After she suggested online that people should not sacrifice animals to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, two petitions were lodged against her in Pakistan’s high court accusing her of blasphemy — a serious charge in Pakistan, where it can be punishable by death and where such accusations can lead to fatal vigilante attacks. The investigations against her are still active, and two major TV channels ran segments denouncing her.

Farooqi’s personal relationship status is a particular fixation for online trolls. YouTube videos and tweets speculating on Farooqi’s “secret marriage” went viral online from 2016 to 2018.

Farooqi said that the endless speculation over a woman’s personal life is part of the abuse women endure simply for doing their jobs. “Men are really obsessed with if a woman journalist is single or if she’s married,” she said, “and if she’s married, what’s the status of her marriage, and if she’s divorced, then what’s the reason, and if she’s single, then it’s a crime. In the field of journalism, you can’t be a single woman; you’re suspected with all kinds of nasty ideas. If she’s still single, that means she’s having multiple affairs.”

The ICFJ’s Posetti said the response of a woman’s news organization is critical to protecting her from such harassment. Women journalists should never be compelled by their news organizations or their attackers to reveal or confirm intimate details of their personal relationships, she said, especially when highly credible threats of violence are involved and family members are under attack.

“You do not have to subject yourself to any kind of perceived right to exposure, as though [the way a woman speaks about her personal life] is somehow going to reflect the transparency or accountability of a news organization,” she said. “Women need to be given the autonomy to determine, when they are targeted, how they respond, and specifically with reference to trying to protect their family members who have nothing to do with the operation of the news organization they work for.”

Until news organizations recognize the purpose of harassment campaigns and learn to navigate them appropriately, experts say, women will continue to be forced from the profession and the stories they would have reported will go untold.

“This is about terrifying female journalists into silence and retreat; a way of discrediting and ultimately disappearing critical female voices,” Posetti said. “But it’s not just the journalists whose careers are destroyed who pay the price. If you allow online violence to push female reporters out of your newsroom, countless other voices and stories will be muted in the process.”

“This gender-based violence against women has started to become normal,” Farooqi said. “I talk to counterparts in the U.S., U.K., Russia, Turkey, even in China. Women everywhere, Iran, our neighbor, everywhere, women journalists are complaining of the same thing. It’s become a new weapon to silence and censor women journalists, and it’s not being taken seriously.”

About this story
This news story was originally published by the Washington Post, attributed to Taylor Lorenz, as part of its series on the “Story Killers” project.
Story Killers” is a project led by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based consortium of investigative journalists that pursues the work of assassinated and threatened reporters and editors worldwide. This project involved more than 100 journalists from 30 news organizations, including The Washington Post, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Haaretz and El País.