Cyber bullying has evolved as a major problem in Pakistan in recent years. It has become a mundane experience as thousands of young people receive unsolicited slanderous, insulting, and negative messages and comments on their social media accounts. The Express Tribune conducted a survey in 2013 and it stated that 75% online users were men – a depiction of male dominancy on the Internet. Sadly, young women in Pakistan face online harassment from men and this issue has escalated to greater lengths in recent times in proportion to social media usage. Pakistani women being marginalised on the Internet have also become victims of misogyny and hypocrisy by men.
Irrespective of developing and developed nations, online harassment is a dilemma being observed everywhere. In a country like ours where technology invades earlier than its due SOPs, a mushroom growth of online harassment has tarnished the reputation of many young women. Intimidating, maligning and blackmailing women through fake accounts lead to psychological dejection in women, who end up deactivating their social media accounts. The future of social media in Pakistan would be somber had cyber criminals not been curbed through laws. The involvement of few sincere private organisations leading this cause to protect the sanctity and privacy of women is a watershed moment in Pakistan.
In 2016, a bill (The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act – PECA) was enacted by parliament that helped out in bringing the cyber criminals in the jurisdiction of law. Anousha Rehman Khan (a lawyer and minister of state for information technology and telecommunication) explained on multiple occasions how good number of lives were destroyed due to misuse of social media and that how crucial it was to promulgate this bill.
Despite the law has been enacted, public awareness about this particular law is scanty. Few private organisations sensed the need to aware and rescue public (particularly women) from online harassment. Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is one such organisation that works to create public awareness, especially women, on protecting their social media accounts and register their genuine complaints against online harassment. A research was conducted by DRF in 2016 to obtain the data of women who were harassed online. This research was performed in 17 major universities of Pakistan, in all the provinces. The findings were startling as 34% of respondents (all women) admitted that they had faced harassment on the Internet while 55% conceded that they knew about other women being harassed online. When asked those who reported FIA for online harassment, 47% responded that it was very helpful and their cases were properly investigated. However, 53% were of the opinion that reporting procedure needs to be more advanced and specific as it is not of much help. Surprisingly, 72% of educated women didn’t have knowledge about the existence of any law against online harassment. Latter is the part where government and private organisations need to work aplenty.
In a rigid society like ours, cultural norms and notion of honour render huge obstacle in fighting cases against online harassment. The offender, thus survives many a time and online harassment remains a highly under-reported offense.
There are ample instances when harassers were apprehended and punished after the promulgation of this bill. A professor of University of Karachi was apprehended after the victim presented proofs of him being involved in online harassment. Similarly, few female faculty members of NCA Rawalpindi brought up evidences of online harassment against director of the campus. He was then asked to step down from the post upon investigation.
Meanwhile, in the brouhaha of online harassment, female rights activists in Pakistan argue that victims should opt due legal process with substantial and tangible evidences rather than castigating men in general and seeking help from social media users. For them, the trend of anonymous accusations could delegitimise the long struggle against online harassment. One embodiment is of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s case last year when she took her sister’s matter to twitter instead of fighting it legally.
PECA provides safety to the internet users. However, the burden lies on government and different organisations that work to aware masses about the legislation. More importantly, it is also the duty of educated class to create awareness about the practicality and legality of the law. Government must devise a policy to educate school, college and university students about Internet safety, freedom of expression and right to online privacy. They must be taught how they can legally take up their cases. Article 18 of PECA states:
"Whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or displays or transmits any information through any information system, which he knows to be false, and intimidates or harms the reputation or privacy of a natural person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extended to three years or with fine which may extend to one million rupees or with both."
Once the complaint is registered, the matter is taken up by FIA which traces the offender while keeping the privacy of the complainant intact.
This legislation, if properly used, might appease online gender discrimination and challenges to the feminism online. Moreover, opinion makers and media giants should take up the need to educate masses about Internet safety measures. Speaking out online against harassment might be significant but legal procedure ought to be followed. There are now laws for resolving these matters. If these legal procedures are not used, then bashing harasser on twitter and Facebook is just accusations and creating controversies. PECA is one good legal procedure to curb online harassment against women.