Bad Character To Treason: Pakistani Journalists Battle For Their Reputations

Bad Character To Treason: Pakistani Journalists Battle For Their Reputations
One barometer for the state of freedom of speech and the freedom to report in Pakistan can be gauged from the harassment -- whether virtual or physical -- that journalists have to face in the country.

A global survey report prepared by the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, Writing and Media. In 2022, some 645 journalists living in 87 countries were asked questions in six languages.

Of those surveyed, around 63% said that their individual reputations were attacked at least once a month. At the same time, a whopping 19% reported facing such attacks daily.


Frequency of reputational attacks on journalists.

The rates were even higher for attacks on the reputations of their news outlets (75%) or the broader news media sector (90%).

The report noted that this is a worrying trend because a journalist's reputation affects whether they are heard and believed, trusted by potential sources, and often whether they can survive economically.

Hence, attacking a journalist's reputation most benefits those who want to hide the truth or evade accountability.

Read more: Freedom of Speech Under Siege In Pakistan

What are reputational attacks?

The report's authors defined "reputational attacks" as public messages intended to discredit, delegitimize, or dehumanize journalists.

These attacks are frequently mounted online by accounts with neither names nor pictures that can identify real individuals. What is worrisome is that politicians can also mount these attacks in their speeches, news broadcasts, and courtrooms.

They can range from epithets in Twitter comments, to groundless claims in legal suits, to sophisticated disinformation campaigns using manipulated videos.


Types of reputational attacks faced by journalists.
Types of reputational attacks faced by journalists.

Impact of reputational attacks

The impact of the attacks can be witnessed in how press freedom and trust in journalism appear to be in decline globally while threats to journalists' safety are on the rise.

The report noted that the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had recorded fatal attacks on at least 67 journalists and media workers in 2022, the highest since 2018. Moreover, a record 363 were in jail as of December 1, 2022.

Moreover, the report found that journalists who faced frequent reputational attacks were more likely to have experienced harm to their mental and physical health, seriously considered quitting journalism, and relocated from their city or country to avoid or mitigate threats.

Their work made them more likely to face legal repression, such as targeted arrests or legal actions,.

Consequently, around 40% of respondents said they changed or reduced their reporting on some issues to avoid efforts to discredit or harass them.


Impact of reputational attacks on journalists.

Where do reputational attacks come from?

The survey report found that the most common sources of reputational attacks were politicians and public officials (reported by 72% of respondents).

Respondents in countries with low levels of press freedom reported considerably more reputational attacks from politicians and political parties in power than those in high press freedom countries (58% vs 22%).


Who are responsible for the most reputational attacks on journalists.

Common accusations

Journalists and news media outlets were most commonly accused of political bias (54% of respondents).

It was followed by claims of incompetence (43%) and unethical conduct (42%).

What is happening with Pakistani journalists?

In Pakistan, journalists reported facing reputational attacks across gender, seniority, and ethnic divides. From the virtual arenas to the real world, the threats were too close, and the consequences were chilling.

Journalists interviewed as part of the report said that the most common reputational attack was the accusation of being an "envelope journalists" (an allusion to bribing people with envelopes of money).
"They made graphics about me, and there were vlogs about how wrong my information was"

This often accompanied allegations of lying or defaming a public official.

On the other end of the spectrum, journalists were accused of treason.

The report quoted a news editor in Pakistan explaining this attack: "In the public perception, it's a matter of honor."


Censorship, freedom of speech, journalism, attacks on journalists.
Major motives identified for reputational attacks.

The report noted that journalists in low press freedom countries were generally more likely to face reputational attacks from politicians and political parties in power at the national level than those in high press freedom countries (58.3% vs 21.5%) and at sub-national levels (45.6% vs 24.6%). By contrast, reputational attacks from officials in opposition political parties are relatively consistent across all press freedom levels.

One example of such attacks in practice in Pakistan was an alleged government-orchestrated effort to harass and discredit journalist and editor Benazir Shah.

She had written critically of a provincial government response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which drew an accusation from the health minister of making up facts. Hundreds of hostile on-line messages followed that accusation

"They made graphics about me, and there were vlogs about how wrong my information was," she said.

"What I found common in these accounts was that most of these handles had [the minister's] political party's insignia or their flag or the prime minister's picture because he belonged to the party of the Prime Minister, which was Imran Khan at that time."

Read more: RSF Calls Upon Govt To Abandon ‘Plans’ To Enact Defamation Law

In other instances, fear of retribution has led to self-censorship for a lot of journalists.

"The biggest red line for us is the military," said a news editor in Pakistan. "If you talk about it [critically], then you are in trouble. So you have to really figure out how you are going to present your criticism without triggering anyone."

While Pakistan has a history of violent attacks against male journalists, its steadily increasing pool of female journalists faces different forms of attacks.

A Pakistan-born journalist who lives and works in Canada noted that certain stories trigger reactions that attack her personal identity.

Another journalist explained, "We weren't just targeted for being journalists, we were also being targeted for being women."

The campaigns against women journalists in Pakistan appeared to primarily come from accounts affiliated with the PTI, then in power and led by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

However, the same journalist noted that the more explicit attacks from political sources echoed the gendered dismissals that women journalists faced more broadly.

"To this day, some of what we face on social media and in personal life are comments like, 'What do you know about politics? Stay in the kitchen'," she said. "I even felt a lot of resentment within my own organization or amongst the male colleagues around me, that 'you're only on TV because you're pretty and you just look nice.'"

"Men get trolled, too," said another female journalist in Pakistan, "but not in the same way."

A news editor in Pakistan concurred, suggesting that men were more likely to be targeted for physical violence. But, she said, "it's not that women don't face the threat of physical violence, but those in power or those who coordinate these attacks, they think that women are softer targets so they can be silenced by just throwing sexualized abuse at them or talking to their families. This happened to me. The military's social media wing, they reached out to my father first and they told him, 'We are watching her so tell her to stop.'"
"We weren't just targeted for being journalists, we were also being targeted for being women"

Women journalists in Pakistan began organizing in 2020 against online harassment and attacks on their credibility (South Asia Monitor, 2020).

The modus operandi of attacks from politicians, Shah explained, go something like: "the federal ministers, they tag you [online] or they say, 'This journalist is lying'... Then the second phase is you get these anonymous accounts that attack you and they abuse you and then they send you rape and death threats. And that continues for days."

Those facing greater attacks have been forced to leave the country. But this only opens doors for attackers to target their families left behind.

A Pakistani journalist who had left the country because she and her parents were being surveilled and harassed when she worked on stories critical of the local government said:

"I don't know about other journalists, but I do feel that I have some responsibility towards my loved ones and my family."

Explaining her decision to move to Canada, she said, "I can't jeopardize their safety for the work that I'm doing."

Another journalist in Pakistan observed that several colleagues had left the country once networks of political actors began to treat them as "highly toxic," making it dangerous and difficult to do their job. "They say, okay, now we [will go] abroad and do true journalism."

However, those journalists can then face new accusations: they just wanted citizenship abroad. This theme was repeated by several interviewees now in exile — including journalists from Venezuela, Mexico, and Iran — the reputational attacks continued as long as they kept working as journalists.

Another journalist practicing in Pakistan said that being regularly smeared and harassed on social media by politicians and their supporters "impacts how you feel about ordinary citizens, because you just assume everybody is talking about you like these people on the internet are. But still… it didn't stop me from reporting again on these issues."

Read more: Journalism Under Siege: Censorship And Control In Pakistan

While more frequent reputational attacks did not translate into higher levels of self-censorship among respondents, they do still function as a form of censorship.

Obviously, journalists can less report on topics if they are jailed, go into exile, quit journalism, or experience other negative consequences associated with higher frequencies of reputational attacks. So "chilling" still happens.

To make matters worse, journalists find it difficult to seek help for the mental trauma caused. The task is made infinitely harder when segments of journalists do not receive support from their fraternity just because of gender.

A journalist working in Pakistan told the report's authors, "You don't really see advocacy for helping women around trauma, around bullying or trolling on Twitter."

Male journalists are "very dismissive" about these issues, she said, and so they are not addressed "because women aren't really leading newsrooms."

This interviewee, along with others in Brazil, India and the Czech Republic, argued that it was critical for women to be in leadership positions in news outlets and press associations so that gendered attacks on reputation and safety are dealt with seriously.


Reputational attacks can cause or exacerbate personal and professional harm to journalists.

They can be used strategically to complement or increase the likelihood that journalists will face violence, legal repression, or other severe attacks on their safety and autonomy.

The report urged newsrooms, press freedom bodies and civil society organizations to develop monitoring systems to identify reputational attacks and harassment targeting journalists.

They were further urged to develop best practices to defend journalists' reputations, from expressions of public support to legal action against those who defame or threaten journalists.

Moreover, best practices should address the additional risks journalists face due to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and other aspects of their identities.

Newsrooms were urged to establish protocols to support journalists who face attacks on their reputations and harassment.

These protocols should include preventive measures like cyber-security training and reactive measures like legal and psychological assistance.

Externally, social media companies were urged to improve their anti-abuse tools, content moderation, and capacity to assist targeted journalists, along with providing greater transparency to independent researchers and civil society organizations.

Governments were asked to strengthen commitments to protect journalists' rights and freedom of the press and hold to account those who violate journalists' rights — including other governments.

Read the full report here