MAY 18, 2023: Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has released its sixth annual Cyber Harassment Helpline Report for 2022. The Helpline completed six years of operations since its launch in December 2016. The Helpline has received a total number of 14,376 cases in the last six years. In 2022, it reported a total of 2695 new cases with an average number of 224 new cases received each month, November 2022 being the busiest month.
The report is a compilation of the data from cases received by the Helpline through its toll-free number (0800-39393), which is available from Monday to Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm, and other services over email and DRF’s social media platforms. The report also contains case studies from Helpline callers and recommendations for policymakers and law enforcement agencies (LEAs).
The Cyber Harassment Helpline is the region’s first dedicated helpline addressing online violence with gender-sensitive, confidential and free services. It provides legal advice, digital assistance and basic psychological assistance and offers a proper referral mechanism. In May, the Helpline expanded its operations to 7 days a week to cater to a growing number of requests over the weekend. Nighat Dad, Executive Director of DRF, noted, “In 2022 we saw a significant rise in cases of financial fraud, scam attempts and online smear campaigns against transgender activists and individuals in the country. The rise in digital hate speech against the transgender community pointed towards a worrying new trend of identity-based attacks.”
Women were the highest reported victims of online harassment constituting 58.6% of complainants in 2022. The Helpline also noted that the transgender community was subjected to an orchestrated online hate campaign this year and made up approximately 1% of the complainants who reached out to us. The response, or lack thereof, by social media platforms, where the campaign was orchestrated, is another aspect of the trend. Hyra Basit, the helpline manager stated, ‘At the Helpline, we consider it our responsibility to advocate for the most vulnerable segments in society, and to this end, we made constant efforts to engage social media companies to explain the context within Pakistan and the harmful consequences of narratives that don’t fit neatly within the scope of community guideline violations’.
The highest number of cases in 2022 were from Punjab (1712), followed by Sindh (354) and KPK (144). Geographical breakdown of the data helps in mapping the accessibility of law enforcement and other remedial resources. The FIA, which is the designated law enforcement agency under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), has cybercrime wings in only 15 cities. While reports can be submitted through their helpline and online complaint form, feedback from multiple complainants shows that these methods are not reliable and the most efficient way to submit a complaint is through in-person complaints. Furthermore, the Helpline occasionally receives complaints from people outside Pakistan (106 in 2022), both Pakistani and non-Pakistani citizens, where the lack of physical presence or representative within the country to file a case with the FIA can be a challenge.
The report also includes a set of recommendations for policymakers and LEAs regarding online harassment cases in the country. For Policymakers, the report recommends addressing the existing digital gender divide in the country by removing financial, safety, and social barriers that women face when accessing digital devices and internet spaces. The report recommends FIA enhance its technical expertise by investing in a continuous capacity-building process in order to overcome the investigative delay in cybercrime complaints. Furthermore, regular gender sensitivity training be provided to officials of cybercrime wings. DRF also recommends investment in research at the cybercrime wings to cater to the needs of the litigants and complainants.