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Female journalists face gendered forms of surveillance, study finds


ISLAMABAD: Female journalists face more surveillance by their audience and readers than by the state and intelligence agencies, research on the ‘Surveillance of Female Journalists in Pakistan’ has found.

The pilot study of gendered surveillance, conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), found that this surveillance begins when they start their professional careers, as audiences try to keep more of a check on female journalists than male journalists. The focus of this surveillance remains on their gender and appearance rather than their work.

Seven journalists from various media platforms were interviewed during the course of the study.

The research focused on the gendered forms and various sources of surveillance – from the state to the audience to political groups. Women interviewed by the study said they were surveilled by state authorities and subjected to constant social surveillance in the form of abuse on social media.

In addition to mapping the kinds of surveillance female journalists face, the report also explores the impact of this kind of constant monitoring in terms of its psychological toll, self censorship and retreat from digital spaces.

Saba Eitzaz, who works for BBC Urdu, said social surveillance online has had “a tremendous psychological effect [and] I felt violated”.

Award-winning journalist Kiran Nazish said: “It’s not just one person telling you that you don’t belong here, it’s a number of people, and that constant refrain can be very intimidating and one starts to feel cornered.”

Maria Memon, an anchorperson, said: “Even if I was told that I could tweet about anything without repercussions, I don’t think I would do it because I don’t think that surveillance is completely avoidable.”

Other journalists interviewed included Amber Shamsi, Sarah Eleazar and Ramish Fatima.

DRF Executive Director Nighat Dad said the study took around two months to complete.

She said: “Gendered surveillance is a free speech issue – it lets women know they are being monitored, and discourages them from reporting and participating in digital spaces.”

Luavat Zahid, one of the authors of the study, said: “The issue was very close to my heart because I have worked as a journalist and faced the same kinds of problems. People try to do character assassinations of female journalists, but male journalists are barely affected by character assassination.”

Main findings

DRF’s study found that the experience of surveillance for female journalists is gendered, and therefore different from the experience of their male colleagues. While there is no conclusive evidence of whether women face more surveillance, the form the surveillance takes include sexualised threats and attacks on character and appearance. The report said this gendered form of surveillance is true for both state and social surveillance.

The report identifies the first form of surveillance as surveillance by the state, government institutions and intelligence agencies.

State surveillance is troubling given that it is backed by state machinery, which makes for effective, systematic and efficient monitoring.

On the other hand social surveillance, experienced by all the journalists, is carried out by the audience, political parties, non-state actors, fellow journalists and personal contacts. Some journalists reported that they experienced more social surveillance than state surveillance.

Many of the journalists observed that when it comes to controversial matters, both women and men face equal levels of surveillance, but the form tends to be gendered.

Some journalists said that when the state is attempting to intimidate or discourage them from publishing or reporting particular matters, sexualised threats and personal revelations are often employed.

DRF also found that surveillance has a profound psychological impact on journalists, leaving them paranoid and, at times, traumatised. Many of the journalists said they are guarded about what they say online for fear of surveillance, and thus had to self-censor their opinions and at times, their reporting.


The report recommended that the state and media houses take concrete steps to protect female journalists from particular kinds of gendered surveillance.

It also said that social surveillance needs to be identified as a serious issue, so steps can be taken to control it and to support journalists who face it on a daily basis.