Archives for November 2020

November 19, 2020 - Comments Off on October 2020: DRF launches First Edition of E-zine ‘Feminist Movements Go Online in Pakistan’

October 2020: DRF launches First Edition of E-zine ‘Feminist Movements Go Online in Pakistan’

Online Campaigns and Initiatives 

Launch of e-zine

feminist movement

DRF launches e-zine feminist movements go online in Pakistan. The e-zine discusses the onset of feminist movements in the digital age and how social media has become a tool for rallying feminists online. 

Click here to access first version of our e-zine:


Podcast: “Do Dost aur Digital pe Kacheri”

In this episode two friends, Simran and Fiha (Communication and Design students at Habib University) talk about the criticality of the digital space. From personal experiences to shared insights, from incidents in their physical surroundings to the ones observed in the digital world, it has it all. This podcast casually unveils the power of the online world as well as the lack of it, taking you on a journey of relatable experiences and hushed conversations.

Listen to the podcast here:


A recent Supreme Court observation was hailed as an important precedent when it comes to honor killing in Pakistan. Our legal team chose important segments of the observation and posted it on social media to raise awareness about the document. 


DRF has launched the #ActivismInPandemic campaign highlighting the important work of human rights defenders and journalists have been doing during COVID19. The campaign aims to share experiences of journalists and HRDs during the pandemic and also highlight the importance of managing work and stress during these testing times. 

#MentalHealthAwareness #MentalHealthDay

Following Mental Health Day, our Helpline team shared positive affirmations and different aspects of the mental health discourses. This was an important campaign to stretch past just ‘Mental Health Day’ and use October as a Mental Health Month, given how Pakistani society sees mental health 


As part of the digital security month, we designed an A to campaign to go over the basics of digital security as well as how to be safer online. 

#UnMaskTheTruth #StopSilencingJournalists

In collaboration with Free Press Unlimited, Digital Rights Foundation sent face masks with the taglines Unmask the truth and Stop silencing journalists to the members of our Network of Women Journalists to show solidarity with journalists across the globe in our collective support for press freedom and against violence, censorship and persecution. Members shared their photos wearing the masks with a short quote on why they think it is important for journalists to do their work free from violence and threats. 


On this year’s International Internet Day, the DRF team did a campaign on internet shutdowns and their costs on the digital economy of Pakistan. 

internet shutdown

Questionnaire on personal data and politics

DRF, along with Media Matters for Democracy, is conducting a survey on the use of personal data by the private sector for purposes of political persuasion.

We would really appreciate it if you can fill out our survey (available in English and Urdu).



Policy Initiatives 

Open Data Initiative

mapping gender based

Data, in today’s hyper-digital world, has been monetised and become a site for exploitation. Those who extract, collect and analyse data have acquired immense power, which is often concentrated in the hands of the few.

As a digital rights and feminist organisation, it is our mission to dismantle these structures of power through open data practices. This initiative of mapping online trends through open data principles is a start. We hope this openness and transparency through sharing of knowledge sparks collaborative work that builds on these open data sets to advocate and fight for social justice in both online and offline spaces!

Learn more about our initiative here.

Mapping gender-based violence since the #motorwayincident

This month we tracked incidents of gender-based violence and child abuse since the motorway incident based off reports from English-language newspapers. The dataset can be accessed here.

Disinformation Campaign from Pro-India Accounts

The research team at DRF compiled a list of accounts and tweets disseminating disinformation through extensive Twitter searches online using keywords such as “Karachi”, “Karachi blast”, “civil war” and “FATF” based on an early analysis of sample tweets being identified by fact-checkers in Pakistan. The tweets were catalogued on this spreadsheet which contains 86 tweets originating from a total of 62 accounts.

A report from the data was published and can be found here.

Report: “Availability and responsiveness of gender-based violence helplines in Pakistan” by Digital Rights Foundation and Chayn

Chayn and Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) have collaborated to conduct a comprehensive study of the helplines and resources available to support survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) in Pakistan.

This study was conducted between May and June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was conducted at a time when infection rates were rising across the country as the state gradually eased several lockdown restrictions. Over this period, reports of GBV, both online and offline, increased around the country.

You can access the report here:

Fact Checking and Source Verification Manual in times of COVID19

DRF launched it’s fact checking and source verification manual in times of COVID19 for journalists and information practitioners with the support of Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The manual has been developed keeping in mind this disinfordemic age in times of COVID19. 

You can access the manual here:

Cyber Harassment Helpline September Statistics 


Cyber Harassment Helpline received 473 complaints in the month of September. In comparison to the previous month of August, this number has slightly increased. It shows that there was a spike in the cases of online violence especially blackmailing through non consensual use of information and images.The number of male complainants calling on behalf of their female friends or family members has also increased. Another observed trend is of social engineering through which people are coerced into sharing their personal details like National Identity Card number, WhatsApp code, bank account details and, e-wallet details making them susceptible to hacking and financial fraud. 

Data Privacy Booklet in English and Urdu

DRF with the support of Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) released the data privacy booklet in urdu and english highlighting important privacy aspects for young adults. The booklet is specifically designed for young adults and the privacy issues they face online. 

You can access the booklet here in Urdu:

You can access the booklet here in English:

Media Coverage 

What is emotional regulation and why is it so important?

Kashfa Zafar wrote on what is emotional regulation and why is it so important? 

Read the full blog here:

Silent Battles: How Pakistani Women Counter Harassment in Cyberspace

DRF’s Cyber Harassment Helpline provides resources to victims of harassment online especially women who have no place to go. 

Read about the challenges that women face in online spaces here:

Events and Sessions 

Changing the Face of Politics Podcast


DRF’s Nighat Dad took part in a podcast on changing the face of politics with Michelle Bachelet. Nighat Dad highlighted the importance of digital rights and gender equality in a democracy with the former president of Chile Michelle. 

You can listen to the full podcast here:


Ezine Launch: Feminist Movements Go Online in Pakistan
Date: October 20, Tuesday
Facebook live

Digital Rights Foundation launched its two-part e-magazine titled “Feminist Movements Go Online in Pakistan” to talk about the role online spaces have had in the feminist movement in the country. Some of the authors from the first edition of e-zine came together to discuss the themes they explored in their submissions and the importance of online spaces in creating feminist collectives, communities, and consciousness!

Link to discussion:

Report Launch: Availability and responsiveness of gender-based violence helplines in Pakistan
Date: October 7
Facebook live

Shmyla from DRF was in conversation with Hera Hussain from Chyan to talk about the launch of our report on helplines working on gender-based violence in Pakistan. The report was done in collaboration with Chayn (you can follow them on Twitter: @ChaynHQ and check out their own on their website: 

You can watch the conversation here:

Refresher on digital safety tools (for journalists, bloggers, researchers and content creators) - 13th and 14th october

A two-day refresher on basic digital safety tools and techniques was conducted by DRF’s Digital Security Expert to reiterate the importance of integrating these practices in their work, especially in times of Covid-19. Each training was attended by around 10 people each.  

Meeting on creating synergies regarding COVID19 and the human rights situation in Pakistan - NHRF

DRF participated in a meeting on creating synergies regarding COVID19 and the human rights situation in Pakistan by the Norwegian Human Rights Fund. In the meeting DRF’s Nighat Dad highlighted the importance of civil society collaborating and working together in these testing times. 

Rapid Fire Chat


Digital Rights Foundation, held its fourth and fifth RapidFire Chat on 23rd and 29th October. The fourth chat invited two panelists, Sabin Agha and Mehar Khursheed, to discuss the spike in bans and censorship and was moderated by Seerat Khan from DRF. The next chat which was held on the World Internet Day talked about the misogyny of the internet with Saba Bano Malik and Atiya Abbas and was hosted by Huma Umer from DRF. The chats were interactive and fun conversations on otherwise loaded and heavy topics and were meant to have a light conversation during the pandemic when the digital spaces are already laden with workshops, webinars and much more. 

Twitter Chat: Home based workers in digital space

DRF’s Nighat Dad participated in a twitter chat by UN Women on home based workers in the digital space. The digital gender divide was highlighted by Nighat Dad along with the added labor that women have to do now due to the pandemic. There was a special emphasis laid on how women need to be empowered more and online spaces need to be made safe for them. 

Girls Education during and beyond COVID19- A live webinar series

Science Fuse conducted it’s 4th webinar on girls education during and beyond COVID19. The webinar focused on creating safes for girls both in online and offline spaces. Nighat Dad of DRF participated in the webinar and shed light on how important it is for women to stand together and make online spaces safe just like offline spaces. 

Do you think internet access is a human right?


DRF conducted a panel discussion on Facebook live on ‘Do you think internet access is a human right’ with the support of Friedrich Naumann Foundation on the 28th of October. The panel included DRF’s youth ambassadors Tia Aftab, Zahra Jadoon, Usama Khilji of Bolo Bhi and Nighat Dad executive director of DRF. The discussion focused on what is the internet and why internet access is important. 

You can access the Facebook Live discussion here:

Cyber Harassment and Offline harassment on campus? What should institutions do?


DRF conducted a panel discussion on ‘cyber harassment and offline harassment on campus? What should institutions do?’ with Friedrich Naumann Foundation on the 29th October. The panel discussion included DRF’s youth ambassadors Kenizeh Khan, Eshal Siddiqui, Barrister Jannat Ali Kalyar and Dania Mukhtar of DRF. The discussion highlighted the responsibility of institutions to protects its student body and the need to believe victims when they share their experiences of online and offline harassment. 

You can access the Facebook live discussion here:

Legal Clinic Video with Hope

DRF in collaboration with Hope recorded a legal clinic video with Nighat Dad. DRF’s Nighat Dad highlighted the laws one can use to protect themselves online. 

You can access the video here:

Combating Insecurity in the Age of Digital Media Transformations

On 5th and 6th October, DRF organized a workshop for journalists and bloggers on ‘’Combating Insecurity in the Age of Digital Media Transformations’’ in Lahore with Daily Times Newspaper.



The workshop aimed to discourse if the existing media and journalism ethics are suitable for the evolving digital media landscape or new and diverse standards are required to tackle issues of not only advanced digital security (such as malware attacks directed at journalists and media practitioners) but also misinformation and report on online trends. The session also aimed to highlight digital rights and create awareness about the legal landscape that governs digital platforms for the freedom of media and journalists, how to secure their professional and personal data and avoid perilous practices online as many journalists actively use the digital media as part of their jobs but are still unaware of these tools.

How to Tackle Sexual Harassment:

DRF was invited by the Mirror to deliver a virtual talk session on “How to Tackle Sexual Harassment" on 3 October 2020.

Digital Literacy Drive

DRF conducted it's first session from the Digital Literacy Drive series on the 22nd of October, 2020. The session was headed by Zainab Durrani and Danish Umar who discussed the themes of consent, privacy, the legal protections afforded to the Pakistani digital landscape and the impact of gender disparity on the women and gender minorities.

COVID19 Updates

Cyber Harassment Helpline

Cyber harassment helpline is now available 5 days a week from 9 am to 5 pm through its toll free number and social media platforms.

You can contact the helpline on 080039393 or email us on between 9 am to 5 pm (monday - friday).

Ab Aur Nahin

In times of COVID19 domestic abuse is at an all time high where victims do not have anywhere to go. Ab Aur Nahin is a confidential legal and counselor support service specifically designed for victims of harassment and abuse.

IWF Portal

DRF in collaboration with Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Global Fund to End Violence Against Children launched a portal to combat children’s online safety in Pakistan. The new portal allows internet users in Pakistan to anonymously report child sexual abuse material in three different languages- English, Urdu and Pashto.

November 19, 2020 - Comments Off on Digital Rights Foundation is gravely concerned by the the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020

Digital Rights Foundation is gravely concerned by the the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules 2020

November 19, 2020

The confirmation of the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards), Rules is cause for alarm given the state of digital freedoms in Pakistan. Digital Rights Foundation (“DRF”) is extremely concerned with both the procedure followed in passing the Rules, devoid of meaningful consultation and transparency, and the implications the Rules have for Constitutional freedoms in the country.

DRF, along with other civil society organisations, boycotted the consultation process conducted by the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecommunication (MoITT) on grounds that the ‘Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020’ notified in January 2020 were not formally de-notified by the government. Despite challenges in high courts across the country, the terms of the consultation process initiated in June 2020 were based on the earlier draft of the rules and the fundamentally flawed section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA). We reiterated our concerns and reservations with the entire process at the time. Our worst fears have been confirmed since then as the government has failed to share the draft of the Rules with any of the stakeholders, including social media companies who participated in the process, and the Rules were notified and only available once Ghazzeted (the rules were published on the MoITT website on November 18, 2020. The entire ‘consultation’ process has been an eyewash to legitimise the Rules which are fundamentally similar to their earlier version.

The only major revision from the earlier draft and the one notified by the government now is the elimination of the body of the ‘National Coordinator’ and these powers have been vested in the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). However, it is alarming that the grounds for removal of ‘unlawful content’ have been expanded beyond the ambit of section 37 of PECA to include sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (sections 292 - 298, 204 and 509) as well as criteria such as “fake or false information.” The definition of “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan” has been expanded to include any information that “harms the reputation of Federal or Provincial Government or any person holding public office” (Rule 4(1)(ii)).  It should be noted that under Indian case law, “security” has been defined to include “those aggravated forms of prejudicial activities which endanger the very existence of the State but do not include ordinary breaches of the peace. We fail to understand how harming the reputation of the Federal or Provincial government undermines the security of Pakistan. It is submitted that such draconian provisions are reminiscent of colonial times, where laws were made with the intent to establish control over the population rather than govern. It should also be noted that sub-statutory rules cannot impose or create new restrictions beyond the scope of the parent act. The defamation law under PECA (section 20) is limited to protecting the privacy or reputation of a “natural person” only, which is to say that only individuals can use the remedy available under section 20. It is submitted that the Federal or Provincial government do not fall under the definition of natural persons and cannot bring a claim under section 20 of PECA. We maintain that section 37 in its form and application is violative of the freedom of expression and right to information enshrined in the Constitution as well as in contravention of Pakistan’s international law commitments. The criteria laid down under Rule 4 exceeds the existing ambit and is ultra vires of the parent act and the powers granted under section 37(2) of PECA.

The powers of removal and blocking of content places immense discretion in the hands of the PTA, without adequate safeguards. While there is provision for review (Rule 11), that review will be conducted by the PTA itself, and the appeals process to the High Court will be the last resort (Rule 12). It is submitted that the remedy for review and appeal provided under the Rules are very limited and narrow. The appeal will be against the review order of the Authority and not against the original order of the Authority. This essentially means that the High Court while hearing the appeal will be limited to adjudication upon the grounds of the review and not the entirety of the record. This limited right to appeal is, therefore, largely ornamental as it leaves the citizens whose fundamental rights have been infringed without an efficacious right of appeal. The powers of banning entire social media applications and platforms (Rule 8) acts as a disproportionate measure to essentially bully service providers and social media companies to ensure compliance with the PTA’s demands. In the past this power has been wielded in an immensely non-transparent manner. There is also no provision for public transparency on what content is blocked or removed by the PTA pursuant to these Rules despite the fact that the removals impact the online freedom of expression and access to information of the public at large. These practices, only bolstered by the Rules, will force some social media companies to leave Pakistan, leaving local users with less choice in terms of the applications and platforms they can access, and leave users with platforms which provide ‘compliant’ services which will be heavily censored, localised and surveilled.

The regulatory uncertainty and onerous restrictions on social media companies in the form of immediate removals (within 24 hours and 6 hours in cases of “emergency” even though the Rules do not define what constitutes emergency cases) will deter investment in Pakistan’s nascent digital economy. Social media companies have already expressed having to “re-evaluate their view of the regulatory environment in Pakistan, as well as their willingness to operate in the country.” These companies are after all businesses in need of a stable and predictable regulatory environment to operate in. Furthermore, these policies will

discourage local businesses and startups--economic activity which the country’s flailing economy desperately needs.

Lastly, the Rules are an affront to the right to privacy as they require social media companies and service providers to hand over data to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in decrypted form, placing a legal obligation on companies to break the encryption in secure and private communications (Rule 9(7)). The Rules also anticipate a future Personal Data Protection Act (the current draft of which requires undefined ‘critical personal data’ to be stored in servers within Pakistan) and require that companies set up “one or more database servers in Pakistan within eighteen months of coming into force” (Rule 9(5)(d)). This move towards data localisation is ill-advised as it jeopardizes the data security of Pakistani citizens.

We can only hope that the institutional checks and balances within the government, the parliament and courts, are able to correct this wrong before irreparable damage to our online freedoms is done. It is incumbent on our judiciary to independently review the legality and constitutionality of these Rules in light of the concerns we and other digital rights groups have raised. Lately, the parliament needs to significantly amend the draconian PECA with a complete repeal of section 37 to ensure the integrity and freedom of the internet.

 The Rules can be accessed here:

 The earlier version of the Rules can be accessed here: 

 Hasnaat Malik, “IHC moved against new rules for regulating social media IHC will hear the case on August 17,” The Express Tribune, August 15, 2020,

 Ramsha Jahangir, “Govt begins consultation on online harm rules,” Dawn, June 3, 2020, 

 “Comments on the Consultation & Objections to the Rules,” July 1, 2020, 

 “[Pakistan] The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) publishes statement on “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules” (23 Oct 2020),” Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), October 23, 2020,

 Romesh Thapper v. State of Madras (1960) SCR 594

 The said section reads “whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits and 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”

 “[Pakistan] The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) publishes statement on “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules” (23 Oct 2020),” Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), October 23, 2020,

 The draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2020 can be found here:

 We analysed the April 2020 draft of the Personal Data Protection Bill 2020, along with the implications for data localisation, here:

 “Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020: Legal Analysis,” Digital Rights Foundation, February 20, 2020, 

“Pakistan’s Online Censorship Regime,” BoloBhi, July 18, 2020 

“Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020: Key Concerns, Objections and Recommendations,” February 2020,


November 11, 2020 - Comments Off on Punjab Police Women Safety App: Old Approach, New Interface

Punjab Police Women Safety App: Old Approach, New Interface

November 11, 2020

This week the Punjab police launched it’s ‘women safety’ android phone application in an effort to leverage technology to enhance policing for women’s safety. After immense and justified backlash in the aftermath of the horrific motorway gang-rape incident in Septemeber, it is not surprising that the Punjab police is attempting to implement women-centric reform. However, as an organisation working on tech and gender for a number of years, the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) sees the approach and the application both as wholly inadequate for tackling the issue of gender-based violence in the country.

The application can be downloaded from Google Play Store here.

What does it do?

The main feature of the application is its ‘panic button’ which can alert the law enforcement authorities regarding an incident of gender-based violence at a particular location. Apart from that, the application provides access to numbers of the following agencies: Punjab Police Emergency Helpline 15, Rescue 1122, Punjab Highway Patrol and Motorway Police.


Furthermore, the application has an ‘emergency live chat’ feature, though it is unclear whether the feature is a chatbot or run by the Punjab Police personnel. There is also a section on laws relating to violence and harassment; however, our team felt that the section needed to be translated into Urdu as well and could do with more visual/video-based content to make the laws more accessible. Lastly, the app crowd-sources safety reviews of different locations across the province, allowing users to pin rate locations as “secure”, “partially secure” and “not secure” according to their experience.


The Location Review feature is a good idea as it allows policymakers to track which locations are marked and unsafe and design policy interventions to rectify the problem. This, however, comes with a caveat as the data will only be meaningful if a large number and diverse set of users contribute to it. Additionally, data collected from these reviews should not be used to justify surveillance and over-policing measures in certain locations, which create additional human rights concerns and issues of discrimination rather than solve the problem of women’s safety.


Currently, the application is only available on Playstore and compatible with Android phones, which excludes those with iOS-based phones. Furthermore, given that Pakistan has one of the highest gender digital divides in the world, the application essentially only caters to women with smartphones and access to mobile internet. According to the GSMA “Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020”, Pakistan has the widest mobile ownership gender gap as women were 38%  less likely than men to own a mobile phone and 49% less likely to use mobile internet. As per a study by LirneAsia, a think-tank based in Sri Lanka, Pakistani women are 43% less likely to use the internet than men.

The digital safety team at DRF reviewed the application to find a number of issues in terms of privacy. Given that the app collects highly personal information including phone number, location access and NIC number, robust data security and protection policies must be in place to ensure that the women using the application can trust the technology. Furthermore, the permissions of the app include GPS and network-based location, phone number, access to phone contacts, media files and storage.

The digital safety team at DRF reviewed the application to find a number of issues in terms of privacy. Given that the app collects highly personal information including phone number, location access and NIC number, robust data security and protection policies must be in place to ensure that the women using the application can trust the technology. Furthermore, the permissions of the app include GPS and network-based location, phone number, access to phone contacts, media files and storage.


Unfortunately, when the team tried to review the privacy policies in place, the link redirected to the ‘Career page’ on the PSCA website,

For anyone using the app, it is apparent that women’s privacy and safety of their personal information was not a priority for the Punjab Police or the developers of this app. For many women reporting a crime of gender-based violence is accompanied by immense anxiety about privacy in terms of their identity and information--without these assurances, women are unlikely to place their trust in the app. In the absence of personal data protection legislation in the country, lack of privacy policies and protocols is a huge concern. Any intervention for women’s safety that neglects to keep their private data safe is counterproductive and wholly incomplete.

Technology as a Silver Bullet for Women’s Safety?

This is not the first time that authorities and tech developers across the world have sought to introduce applications that can address the issue of gender and sexual violence. In fact, this is not even the first time the Punjab government has attempted this, as the current application seems to be a relaunch of an old application developed by the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) introduced in 2017. Nevertheless, there is increasing consensus within researchers and experts that women’s safety applications are unsuited to adequately addressing the question of violence against women.

Firstly, these applications treat women’s safety as an issue that only occurs in public places and crimes perpetrated by strangers. This approach fundamentally misunderstands issues of violence, which are perpetrated inside the home (domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence at the hands of family members and ‘trusted’ individuals). This means that applications such as these are only scratching the surface of the violence and harassment that women face in society at large.

Secondly, no amount of technology and applications can solve the systemic problems of misogyny and patriarchal mindsets within the police and public institutions. Often women do not report cases of violence because of societal perceptions around victims and victim-blaming by law enforcement bodies. Technology will not change these attitudes. Applications such as these just provide a new interface for an old institution. Until and unless law enforcement bodies and the legal system, in general, engage in systemic reform at every level, any technological interventions will be rendered superfluous.

Thirdly, surveillance cannot and should not be posited as a solution to women’s safety. DRF has pointed out several times that technological interventions that seek to increase surveillance of women’s movement and bodies in order to ‘protect’ them are simply benevolent and paternalistic patriarchal control in another name. Technology often ends up replicating familial and societal surveillance of women’s bodies which does not truly emancipate or change the root causes of the violence against them.

Fourthly, if the app seeks to serve all women it should take into account issues of accessibility for women and persons with disabilities. Currently, for instance, the app lacks features to make the text and graphics readable for visually impaired persons. The app does come with a video explaining how to use it, however more visual and video content regarding the laws and other features will make it more accessible to women who are not literate.

This application comes less than two months after the motorway incident which shook the mainstream national consciousness on the issue of gender-based violence, particularly rape. It is no secret that the Punjab Police received immense criticism because of the victim-blaming remarks of the CCPO Lahore, Umar Sheikh. As per data collected by the DRF team, through monitoring of English-language newspapers, 123 cases of gender-based violence have been reported in just two months after the incident. Incidents such as these often compel law enforcement to engage in interventions and reform that creates the public perception that steps are being taken to address the problem--however cosmetic changes such as new apps do little to actually change things. ‘Internet Democracy,’ an organisation based in India, has noted that after the 2012 Delhi rape case several ‘women’s safety’ applications emerged. Similar to Pakistan, these technological interventions did little to change the ground realities that women face on a daily basis.


It seems that the Punjab Police has taken a top-down approach to women’s safety by developing (or rather rebranding) technology to ‘protect’ women without taking into account the actual lived experience of women and gender minorities in Pakistan. No effort seems to have been made to consult women’s rights and digital rights organisations when making the technology. Technology cannot be expected to enact social change or facilitate marginalised communities if its design does not incorporate the very communities that it seeks to serve. Additionally, technology cannot be used as a smokescreen to dent criticism of policing and the barriers women face at the hands of law enforcement if it is not accompanied by structural and meaningful reform.


November 2, 2020 - Comments Off on Pakistani students in Wuhan: the other side of the story

Pakistani students in Wuhan: the other side of the story

Autor: Tehreem Azeem

Tehreem Azeem is a digital media journalist and a Ph.D. scholar at the Communication University of China.

She tweets @tehreemazeem

Supported by 

“Can you connect me with any Pakistani student in Wuhan?”

This was the common request I was getting from my friends and colleagues working in media houses of Pakistan. I came to Beijing in September of last year to do a PhD in Communication Studies. Four months later, I saw China battling a novel coronavirus which we all today know as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Some of my friends in the media took my comments too for their stories on the situation of Pakistani students in China but I was living in Beijing, 1,115 km away from the virus-hit Wuhan. They were more interested in connecting with someone from Wuhan. Soon, we realized the media was interested in the ‘we are dying here’ statements only. Many of the students stopped talking to the media as it was not helping them; instead, it was making their families in Pakistan more worried.

Hira* completed her PhD in December from a university in Wuhan. She had booked a flight of late January which got cancelled after the city was put into lockdown. The university had stopped her stipend as she had graduated. Her university allowed her to stay on campus for free the whole period.

‘It was tough. The university was helping us at every level. They gave us masks, sanitizers, and anything we wanted to get from outside. My problem was a bit different. My stipend had stopped. I did not know how long the quarantine would go. I requested the embassy to at least send us (those who had graduated) to Pakistan. We had nothing to do here,’ she said.

She finally left Wuhan on the first flight of Pakistan International Airlines on 19 May 2020. She spent her quarantine talking with Pakistani girls in a WeChat group. That was the time when some students from Wuhan University of Science and Technology released a video on social media in which they said they had limited food supplies and the government must evacuate them. I asked Hira if she was getting the groceries easily in Wuhan.

Screenshot from the video message of Pakistani students of Wuhan University of Science and Technology

‘Yes, that was not the problem. I had rice, pulses, and spices. I could also order groceries online. Prices of few commodities did go high but I would not say that I was not getting anything.’

Hira said the students were scared of the uncertainty of the whole situation. They just wanted to leave China.

Pakistan decided not to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan. The news was immediately picked up by international media. Deutsche Welle news published a video on their YouTube channel with the title ‘Is Pakistan abandoning its citizens in China?’. The anchor talked to a student from the Xianning city of Hubei province to know the living conditions in lockdown. He told him that he could not even go out of the campus and the city was in complete lockdown.

‘There is no transportation. Our city is totally locked down - no trains, no airports. We are just trapped in our rooms and no one is here to help us.’

Later, a TV anchor took senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani on the video link to get his comment on this issue. Jillani clearly said the real reason behind Pakistan’s decision to not evacuate its citizens from Wuhan was Pak-China friendship.

‘The official stance is that Pakistan does not want the disease to spread. It is acting under WHO guidelines and the Chinese have assured them that we will take care of the situation but the real reason we all know is the special relationship between China and Pakistan.’

No doubt, that was the main reason Pakistan refused to airlift its people from Wuhan. The government first announced to provide financial aid to students in Wuhan and later said it will also send food. The students did receive money but that was not equivalent to USD 840 which was promised. Each student in Wuhan received 3500 yuan which makes USD 496. However, eight students of the University of Chinese academy of sciences and twelve students of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural sciences did not receive this money till the end of March. They received the money after the issue was highlighted in a report of Independent Urdu.

The Pakistani media should have investigated these stories but it preferred to disturb our families in China. Social media influencers or bloggers were no different. Comedian Junaid Akram in a podcast while criticizing the government on its stance about students in Wuhan said that he received calls and messages from relatives of people living in China. He said that students in China had not much food to eat and that they were surviving on whatever rations they had.

Junaid Akram released this podcast on 2 February 2020

TV channels in Pakistan showed visuals from the video message of students from Wuhan University of Science and Technology in their news bulletins. Jamal Ahmed was a student of The Communication University of China in Beijing. His family told him to take the first available flight to Pakistan after they watched these reports on TV channels. Ahmed had to buy an expensive ticket and return to Pakistan; otherwise, he had planned to go after his graduation in July. He talked to a couple of journalists before his departure.

‘I told a journalist that China has even closed mosques so people could not gather at any place. The reporter wrote in their report that Muslim students are even not allowed to go to mosques in China. I contacted the person and asked them to correct it. They changed it after half an hour.’

Ahmed stopped watching TV after he returned home. He said watching TV during the outbreak was creating more panic than the virus itself.

Nazish Zafar of BBC Urdu says the media was taking information from the videos students were posting on social media. She says those videos had different messages – some students wanted to come back, and some did not. The media preferred to stay with the videos, which showed panic, helplessness, and fear.

‘Also, there was no official statement to verify and crosscheck their claims of food shortage. President Alvi and the Foreign minister after their visit to China told the media that the students had asked for Pakistani food. This statement somehow confirmed that the students had food-related issues.’

Sisters Sehar Iqbal and Mehar Iqbal are studying Chinese literature at Wuhan University.  They started vlogging in January. They released a video on 26 January 2020 in which first, they showed the masks their university had given them. Later, they went out of the campus to buy groceries for lockdown. They say we don’t know how long we will have to live like this. In their next video, they talked about the situation of foreigners in Wuhan. They said the situation was not as bad as it was being shown.

‘Our teachers are taking care of us. The whole Pakistani community of our university is in a WeChat group. Our representative took details of each student and forwarded it to the embassy. It’s not like we are alone here.’

Both sisters, Sehar Iqbal and Mehar Iqbal share screen in one of their video on YouTube: Screengrab

They also told that the university had opened its cafeterias and supermarkets which normally are kept closed during summer and winter vacations. Dawn news shared their video in a news story. Aljazeera also published their video on its website and social media platforms on 3 February. This video became the most-watched video on its Facebook and Twitter accounts that week. Both sisters talked to many media houses after that giving the same stance that the situation was not as bad in Wuhan as the media was showing.

When I approached them to have their comments for this piece, they told me that the Pakistani students of their university were threatening them for their comments on media. They said to me that the Pakistani community of their university had decided to give a single narrative in media to push the government to send a plane for their evacuation.

They shared screenshots of a few messages they had received on the Chinese messaging app WeChat with me. In one message, a student told them to take permission from him before giving any comment in the media. The student has written in his message that even male students take his permission before talking to the media. He also wrote that the girls were disrespecting him for not doing so.

Iqbal sisters told me that that particular student is still in China. He did not go back to Pakistan when the plane finally arrived in Wuhan.

A friend of them sent them a message to tell that many members of the Pakistani community had asked him for their fathers’ mobile number. Apparently, they wanted to call him to stop their daughters.

They also received a message from a Chinese number on their WhatsApp in which the sender said that they were not supporting their brothers and sisters. In a friend request on WeChat, a person not only abused them but also threatened to leak their biodata.

The girls said that their WeChat id and WhatsApp number was already shared in the Pakistani community. Some students even called their house and talked to their parents.

The girls were in touch with an official in the embassy of Pakistan in Beijing. They shared these screenshots with the officer. The official did not do much except calling the dean of their department who called them and assured of his full support. Iqbal sisters did not file any complaint to the International Students Office of their university. They said they were so afraid and they did not want any of those threats to come true.

Both sisters appeared in Zara Hat Kay of Dawn News on 9th April 2020. In this show, they mentioned that they were receiving threats for their comments. They also told the hosts how their university was taking care of them during the peak of the outbreak.

While talking to me, they said that their university was providing three-time meals, masks, sanitizers, fruits, sanitary napkins for female students, and diapers for the families with children.

A PhD student of their university who wishes to remain anonymous and who had sent them a threatening message said that the community had decided to put pressure on the government through the media for their evacuation.

‘The whole situation was uncertain here. Everything was closed at that time, and we had no idea when things will come to normal at that time. No student from Wuhan University said that they were not getting food supplies. Some of us had medical issues; three women were pregnant. The outbreak was putting them into depression. Some people were above 40 years of age. That is why the community here was pressurising the government for evacuation.’

I also asked him about the threats Iqbal sisters were receiving for not following what the community was directing and sticking with their comments. He said it might have happened and no one should be blamed for it. It was the uncertainty and the fear of getting an infection that made them harsh.

 This single event tells us how user-generated content can affect media reports if not verified or cross-checked. The Iqbal girls went through a lot, more than any of us whose families would call them hysterically after watching TV reports about our situation in China. That was a tough time. It has passed, but we have lost our faith in the media of our country.  

*Names were changed to protect the privacy of the individual(s)