Pakistani government orchestrates hate campaign against woman journalist
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the violent smear and hate campaign that members of Pakistan’s ruling party are waging on social media at the government’s instigation against a well-known columnist with the BBC’s Urdu-language service. This campaign is an unacceptable violation of press freedom, RSF’s says.
The week-old campaign against Asma Shirazi, who writes a weekly column for BBC Urdu, is being conducted by online supporters of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – Pakistan Movement for Justice – who have evolved into a formidable government weapon for intimidating critical journalists.
The campaign was trigged by comments about Shirazi’s latest column by several government officials including commerce minister Hammad Azhar, who accused her of making “pathetic insinuations” in a tweet. “Asma, sister, you should directly join the PML-N,” he added, referring to the main opposition party.
Shirazi’s “insinuations” in her column were limited to expressions of concern about the state of the Pakistani economy and the lack of a response from the government. But Shahbaz Gill, the Prime Minister’s special assistant for political communication, vilified her at length in a press conference on 21 October, accusing her of crossing “ethical limits” in the column and of bias because she had “close ties” with the leader of the opposition.
Unworthy of a democratic government
Human rights minister Shireen Mazari also inflamed the Pakistani nationalist Twittersphere by referring to the BBC as the “Bharat Broadcasting Corporation” – “Bharat” being the Hindi name for India – and by likening Shirazi to a foreign agent.
“It is extremely unhealthy for the democratic functioning of a society if politicians attack a journalist in such a violent and concerted manner simply for making somewhat critical remarks,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “By publicly smearing Asma Shirazi’s work in this way, without any grounds, the government’s representatives clearly orchestrated the hate campaign that followed their statements. This type of harassment is unworthy of a democratic government and must stop.”
When reached by RSF, Shirazi responded to her detractors with a question: “Where I was unethical in my article? I understand they [the government’s ministers] are hurt by me for talking about actual facts in my articles.”
A recipient of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2014, Shiraz was one of ten journalists working for BBC Urdu and the Urdu-language service of the London-based Independent newspaper who were subjected to an online hate campaign last January. As RSF reported at the time, pro-government activists accused her of being insufficiently patriotic, to the point that she was the target of death threats.
RSF previously condemned the complicit inaction displayed by the Pakistani authorities in connection with the online harassment of journalists in August 2020, when a group of Pakistani women journalists issued a statement denouncing a coordinated campaign of online attacks against them.
Pakistan is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.