Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has launched a study on the experiences of women journalists, activists and information practitioners in online spaces and how these experiences resonate themselves in offline spaces which altogether makes spaces closed for women in the country. The report titled ‘Fostering Open Spaces in Pakistan- combating gender specific threats to women’s activism online’ aims to not only highlight the issues that women information practitioners face but also contains policy suggestions for advocacy around online safety and freedom of expression.
The report is a quantitative study of experiences of 60 women activists and information practitioners in Pakistan and the abuse and harassment they’ve faced online due to their speech, with 4 in-depth interviews conducted from the same pool of participants. The research was conducted in the backdrop of the overall climate of censorship that has sprung across the country with digital technologies being used to intimidate, bully and harass people online. DRF investigates how free speech, privacy and activism are threat in the country and what needs to be done by the relevant stakeholders to curb this threat.
Highlighting the findings of the report, DRF’s Executive Director, Nighat Dad, notes that, “Women have always been under a constant threat online and we’ve seen that due to this they’ve had to not only self censor themselves but also take a step back from their activism completely and we saw this happen especially with the Aurat March backlash that we got.” She adds that, “It is vital that all voices be heard in every space and that whoever disrupts and threatens to silence individuals due to their opinions brought to justice.”
According to DRF’s findings 80% of the women who participated in the survey felt that the online abuse that they face limits their freedom of expression. 61.7% of the women also did not feel that they could trust the FIA with dealing with the problem. Ramsha Jahangir, the author of the report notes that, “With growing evidence of online abuse, and an increasing backlog of cyber harassment complaints, the authorities must look inward instead of pinning the blame on social media companies. The lack of trust expressed in the FIA by the participants of the study further lends credence to this fact.”
The study also has recommendations gleaned from participants of 5 seminars across the country (Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Karachi and Islamabad) with whom the pilot study was shared in the initial phase. The recommendations are directed towards the state, law enforcement agencies, media houses, social media companies and other relevant stakeholders to adopt policies to protect women and their freedom of expression.
Digital Rights Foundation is a registered research-based advocacy non-governmental organization in Pakistan. Founded by Nighat Dad in 2012, DRF focuses on ICTs to support human rights, inclusiveness, democratic processes, and digital governance. DRF works on issues of online free speech, privacy, data protection and online violence against women.