Being a journalist in Pakistan has never been easy. Multiple press watchdogs suggest that it is only getting worse.
Journalists are being targeted, kidnapped and killed in the country by state and non-state actors just by reporting and doing their jobs.
According to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992.
Last year, a report by the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors noted that the media in Pakistan “continues to be in chains” and are “under a strict form of physical intimidation like killings and a self-censorship regime”.
This year, press freedom in Pakistan declined by three points and was ranked 145 out of 180, according to Reporters Without Borders.
“The screws on media in Pakistan are being tightened through various means of censorship, including murders, threats, and harassment, resulting in increasing silence and resulting in erosion of public interest journalism,” noted the Freedom Network, a Pakistani media rights watchdog.
VICE News spoke to Ailia Zehra, a 25-year-old news editor at digital media platform Naya Daur. Last week, Zehra did a commentary on an honour killing case in Balochistan province. She faced a barrage of threats soon after. Zehra spoke about being a female journalist in Pakistan, the themes which antagonise the ruling government, and how she deals with online abuse.
VICE: Tell us about the threats you have recently received.
Ailia Zehra: On September 7, I was live on YouTube speaking about the murder of a female journalist, Shaheena Shaheen in Balochistan province. According to multiple media reports, Shaheen’s husband allegedly killed her to save the family’s “honour”. She was becoming popular for the work she was doing. I have received death and rape threats since. This is not the first time I am at the receiving end of such comments.
What are the other stories you’ve done which prompted such a response?
In May, I did a story about a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) worker in Waziristan, named Badhshai Khan. He had posted a video on Facebook asking people to“kill those who brought dishonor to our traditions.” His video reportedly instigated the “honour killing” of two teenage sisters. I wrote that Khan was absconding five days after the tragedy.
As soon as the story was published, I got threats over Twitter from handles affiliated to PTI and supporters of the government.
What is the one threat or online comment which really left you worried?
It was in response to my video on Shaheen’s killing. One of the comments I received over Twitter read, “Qatal tu tumko bhi kar dena chahiye (You should also be killed)”.
What was your response?
It happens almost daily. I am used to it now.
Somebody who’s upset with your reporting may also make you the target of an attack, physically. Does that come to your mind?
Yes, it does, and I'm prepared because these things are inevitable in my profession.
My family is horrified to see what I face online. Their advice for me is not to say things which might put me in trouble. They have also asked me to consider other career options.
Are there specific topics, writing on which, is bound to upset the government?
Extremism, enforced disappearance, ongoing civil rights movements and human rights issues are sensitive topics in Pakistan.
Being a journalist in Pakistan was always challenging. What is different now?
It was never safe. It’s just that now, journalists are being targeted and harassed by those who are supposed to protect press freedom. This is the big difference. People in power have no idea how to deal with criticism.
Have these reactions influenced your work in any manner?
Yes, there is some amount of self-censorship in my reports now. I use my words carefully. For example, instead of the “military”, I write “state institutions”.
Journalists all over the world are facing threats and are getting killed. What, according to you, is different about the situation in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, you can see a smear campaign against female journalists. The character assassinations and gender-based violence against women journalists seem specific to our country.
I do feel scared and insecure, but these episodes can't deter me from speaking the truth and letting people know what's happening in the society.
We (female journalists) appeared before a parliamentary committee on human rights on August 18 this year. The meeting was preceded by an online campaign with the hashtag #AttacksWontSilenceUs.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
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