Hamara Internet: Helpline launched to curb online harassment

Pakistan of 2016 is quite different from what it was several years ago. More and more people have access to information, thanks to the availability of internet, and that too, at an affordable price. However, this access to internet has come up with a cost, not in monetary terms, but the cost one has to bear in the ugly form of harassment.

In a country like Pakistan, where most of the crimes go unreported, especially those pertaining to online spaces, Digital Rights Foundation is working to ensure that cyber crimes don't go unreported and that more and more people can access the internet without having to bear the brunt of harassment.

The Digital Rights Foundation, which is the brainchild of Human Rights Tulip award recipient Nighat Dad, launched a helpline, the first such in Pakistan, aimed at tackling online harassment, as well as preserving the identity of the victim, provided he or she does not want to be named.

In her keynote address, Nighat Dad gave a brief introduction about Digital Rights Foundation's latest initiative, the Cyber Harassment Helpline, and how this helpline could help a victim report cyber bullies. The idea behind the helpline, she said, was to provide a platform to those people, especially women, who found it difficult to report their harassers.

"It is true that access to information is economical in Pakistan. However, this cheap access to internet has also paved the way for online harassment, which is increasing at an alarming rate," said Dad.

"But the victim should realise that he/she needs to report the crime. We solely cannot rely on the authorities. Equal responsibility lies with the internet companies."

"After the passage of the cybercrime bill, it is now an offence to click a person without his/her consent and, as an individual as well as a community, we need to make sure that such offences are reported," said Dad.

'If a woman is opinionated, she will face backlash'

The first panel discussion, Hamara Internet – Reclaim Online Spaces, saw several women sharing their experiences pertaining to harassment, in public as well as private spaces. They also reflected on the need to reporting the offence.

Tooba Syed of the Awami Workers party talked about the patriarchal system of society. "If a woman is opinionated, she will face backlash," said the political activist.

"You don't have to concede space. It is normal for our society to have a woman who is vocal about her rights. But women have to organise themselves if they want to succeed in reclaiming their space," said Syed.

Yusra Amjad, one of the architects behind Girls at Dhabas, said that public and private spaces were linked with each other. "Social media gives you a double space where you can have a political space without jeopardizing personal relations."

"Online space impacts the offline space dichotomy."

Amjad also quoted the example of the Anarkali mob, saying that they were able to claim the physical space (Anarkali) but they had to remove the video from social media which is the private space.

Ufna Amir of the Internet Society, a global initiative working on internet governance and policy making, lamented low representation of females in technical fields.

"Why are we asking for rights when we aren't even participating. If one wants to claim one's digital rights, one needs to participate," said Amir.

Zoya Rehman, a rights activist, said women still weren't able to understand the nature of online harassment. "Women are taught to remain silent. But we should have the courage to speak. We must realise that harassment is a reality, whether offline or online."

Need for behaviour change

The second panel discussion, Online Harassment of Women – When Honour Turns to Murder in Digital Space, was moderated by Shumaila Jaffrey of the BBC.

Shumaila referred to a recent report of the Federal Investigation of Agency on cyber crimes according to which, she said, 45pc of the victims (from the 3,000 cases) of online harassment were females.

In her remarks, Nighat Dad talked about Qandeel Baloch, a social media sensation who was killed by her brother in the name of 'honour'. The life of Qandeel, she said, was full of struggle and hardships.

"Internet gave her (Qandeel) the space to reclaim her body and sexuality. She was one of those women who do not use the standards set by the society," said the digital rights activist.

"But we all know what happened to her. We all know what happens to those women who are vocal about their rights in Pakistan. Qandeel's murder shows the hypocrisy of our mainstream and social media."

Dad referred to the use of social media as a tool to silence women. "By silencing Qandeel, an indirect message was conveyed to those female who are fighting to claim their sexualtiy."

The activist regretted that in a country like Pakistan, very few people took it upon themselves to create awareness about digital rights. "In Pakistan, people do not even know about their digital rights.

"However, several international bodies are working to ensure that web literature is made a part of school curriculum," said Dad.

Nabeeha Mehar, director of Pakistan Feminist Watch, questioned the hypocrisy of society when it comes to honour killing. "Family honour lies with the female anatomy. Why?"

Mainstream media, she said, cashed Qandeel's case and by doing so, it 'evoked' the so-called sense of honour in her brother. "Nobody cared about the fact that Qandeel Baloch was Fauzia Azeem. We must stop blaming the victim."

Sana Ejaz, a journalist and social activist, said gender-based harassment was prevalent in Pakistan. "Many families don't even allow their females to access technology. But if a woman, somehow, manages to get access to social media then there's a greater change she'll get cyber bullied."

Culture is dynamic for men, but static for women," said Ejaz.

Haseeb Khawaja, a filmmaker and journalist, said Pakistan was amongst those countries where a lot of laws have been formulated. "But the laws aren’t being implemented properly because of communication gap.

"We can never blame technology for our failures and mistakes. At the end of it all, we ourselves are making the most out of technology. Machines do not use social media, people do," he added.

Khawaja also referred to the Kohistan case and said that the case wasn't being investigated properly because of misinformation and too many complexities that revolve around the case.

Uzma Yaqoob, founder of Forum for Dignity Initiatives, stressed the need for behaviour change. "We need to make sure that we trace the source of violence so that action can be taken from the grass-roots."

"Digital space is increasing for everybody. We need to understand that marginalized communities also have the right to access technology. Many people have embraced their sexuality through social media," said Yaqoob.

Social media as a tool of empowerment

The last discussion of the day, The Way Forward: Solutions and Tools against Online Harassment, saw panelists giving recommendations on how to counter cyber threats.

Referring to the toll free national helpline, Nighat Dad said there was a need to link existing helplines with each other. "We have learnt a lot from FIA's cyber crime wing, and we need to make sure that our network is strengthened so that the complaints are effectively redressed."

Shmyla Khan, project lead of the cyber harassment helpline, said the helpline would focus exclusively on tackling cyber harassment. "As of now, no such helpline is available in Pakistan that tackles cyber bullying."

"We felt that there was a need to develop an organisation that works on digital issues. DRF was the first step. Now, under its umbrella, we have launched the helpline which is the next step to prevent the increasing number of online harassment cases," said Khan.

Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of the Punjab Commission on Status of Women, said the commission did not have the capacity to address cyber harassment cases.

"The commission is a statutory body that registers complaints. By collaborating with DRF, we can refer the complaints to a specialised service."

Online threats, she said, were considered a criminal offence under the Pakistan Penal Code. "State has the right to protect you and you have the right to report."

Meerab Lodhi, a senior trainer with Rozan, said her organisation provided direct counselling services to harassment victims. "We have to capacitate running and emerging helplines."

Workers at Rozan, she said, were trained to cater to the needs of victims. "We must not give an impression to a victim that we aren't able to understand her psychological state. We must not create dependancy."

Lodhi said her organisation was working on an evidence-based data on online harassment which, when published, would help policymakers to come up with effective legislation.

Eeman Suleman, one of the girls who protested against the stigmatisation of menstruation at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, shared her experience as a victim of online harassment.

"Online harassment is scary because it traumatizes you. Any person going through this phase needs emotional guidance the most. At times, even your loved ones leave you."

Shazia Ahmed, a Quetta-based activist, said tribal taboos have long been the cause of fear amongst women from rural and far-flung areas. "Women want access to technology but the cannot because their tribes don't allow."

Character assassination, she said, was also a source of discontent among females. "We fail to realise that words have an impact. We should not indulge in character assassination."

Jamshed Kazi, United Nations' Women Country Director for Pakistan, praised DRF for the timely initiative. "Abuse is abuse, no matter how you slice it and, online harassment is a ticking time bomb."

The United Nations, he said, released a report on cyber violence, which revealed that women face harassment more than men. "By harassing women online, you are undermining their economic productivity."

The session concluded with an address from the acting ambassador of the Netherlands, who praised social activists for their efforts in countering online harassment.

"This is an international issue and the Dutch government considered it (action against online harassment) a cornerstone of its policy."

The participants were also of the view that government should create a platform for people to be more sensitive towards harassment. Children, they said, having the access to technology must be educated on how to tackle such a grave issue. They also stressed capacity-building of the existing government institutions.

The writer is a real estate analyst at Zameen.com

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