THE MEDIA COVER-UP? | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation


Pakistan Press Foundation

When Pakistan Television anchorperson Tanzeela Mazhar filed a case against the head of her department, an Inquiry Committee was set up to look into the matter. But, instead of properly investigating the issue, and questioning the accused, the committee asked Tanzeela ‘why she had not left the job if she was being harassed.’

Tanzeela was not the only one who had lodged a formal complaint with the PTV management. Another news anchor, Yashfeen Jamal, had also complained about the current affairs director making sexual advances and harassing the two women.

“In fact, once before someone else had complained about him too but nothing came out of it except that he became even bolder. When it came to us, he probably thought he could get away with anything — and he did,” says Tanzeela. She complained that he sexually harassed his subordinates and often forced them to sit in his office — the only seating place available in the department — and to spend unnecessary hours with him. “He would only advocate for those who did all these things with him and tolerated his vulgar sense of humour, while those who tried to stay away or remain at a professional distance would be discounted,” she explains.

“I went to three different managing directors at PTV, and all of them assured me that things would change, but they did not. He was so influential, they did not dare touch him, and he carried on with his ways.”

Eventually, both Tanzeela and Yashfeen were ‘punished.’ They were both taken off air by PTV through a notification issued on Jan 23, 2017. The reason given was that they had ‘defamed’ the organisation. Women who strive to bring light to injustices through the voice of the media are themselves often vulnerable against sexual harassment at the workplace

Tanzeela stayed on in PTV for about a decade trying to fight against the sexual harassment she had faced but eventually resigned in 2017. The man was still there though, with all his power.

Under Section 4(4) of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010: “The inquiry committee shall submit its findings and recommendations to the competent authority within 30 days of the initiation of inquiry.” A report is yet to be released, says Tanzeela, who along with Yashfeen, is still fighting the defamation case.

Ironically, this occurred in the state-run television channel. And it was not the only case of sexual harassment there.

At a private news channel, Mehwish* was subject to grievous sexual harassment by her own news director over a period of a few months.

“He would stare at me, call me and blatantly tell me to move to a private space so that I could talk ‘openly’, and worst of all told me he would give me monetary favours,” she said. The ‘favours’ were demands the employees had been making, such as pay raises, fuel cards and mobile phone allowances.

“He was around 60, old enough to be my grandfather,” she says. I was so upset by his behaviour, and by the attitude of those around me, that it took me a long time to develop a thick skin.”

At the time, Mehwish says that there was no inquiry committee. She complained to her own reporting manager who pretended not to understand what she was saying.

“Everyone — including all the women there — kept telling me the director was a ‘nice man’ and if he had asked for me to sit near him or to give him attention in some way, there was nothing wrong with that.

“The man actually told me to come to an out-of-city trip with him, and someone told me he often took women outside for trysts,” she said. “But the women kept telling me it was alright to go.”

With the absence of an inquiry committee, Mehwish went to the Pakistan Federal Union for Journalists (PFUJ) to lodge a complaint but was severely disappointed with their attitude. The only female on the committee was absent even though she knew about the case. The men were lax and uncompromising. “No report has come out even today,” she says.

Mehwish received a legal notice from the company for defamation, but it was never really taken to court. “My lawyer said they do this to irritate women,” she said. Before she left the organisation, Mehwish’s programmes were often spontaneously changed, or she found that the studio was booked, or her programme cut to live reporting.

The women who strive to bring light to injustices through the voice of the media are themselves employed by broadcasting and publishing companies who often fall silent, suppress the matter, or actively favour the accused, when it comes to protecting their own women workers against sexual harassment at the workplace.

“The feeling you get is that you are unsafe,” says S.K.*, a reporter who says she has faced harassment in the form of phone messages, verbal innuendos and attempts at physical contact from some of her own staff members. “And it hits you that no one will protect you in your vulnerability. You are very alone, and very helpless and there are people around you trying to isolate you further,” she says.

When Maimoona* joined a TV channel, the news controller called her to his office and told her that she could easily become an anchorperson with her ‘beautiful face and smile.’ “He said he would help me only if I smiled at him every day,” she says. He would offer to take care of logistical issues and do other favours. “When I rejected the offer, I was immediately shifted to a monitoring desk.”

Old-timers say these are age-old stories.

Former reporter, Shahnaz*, who is now in her 60s, believes that what “men will do to women — especially those entering the field — is known to everyone, but people prefer silence.”

In some places, women have a personal support network that allows them some kind of comfort but many of the complainants have said that it was hard to find support from other women in such situations. “The saddest part is that women do not support you, when you speak up about an incident,” says Tanzeela. “Because the slice of pie is so thin, women too resort to fight over it, and so usually blame victims of sexual harassment about the clothes they wear or, if they are confident, they perceive this as ‘asking for it’.”

This was the harsh lesson Mehwish learnt from her experience as well.

Right after she resigned from her job, Mehwish discovered that a petition was given to everyone to sign and declare she had defamed the organisation. “Ironically it was a handful of men who refused to sign it, while all the women readily signed it, with some of them making me out to be someone with a ‘loose character’,” she says. Mehwish was under severe duress for a long time after that.

An International Center For Journalists (ICFJ) survey from 2018, finds that two thirds of women journalists suffered gender-based online attacks. Around 58 per cent said they received insults about their character, 48 per cent received sexist insults, 22 per cent got sent obscene images, while 14 per cent received threats of rape. 46 per cent of the women said their work was devalued because of their sex.

These attacks also had a massive impact on women journalists. A massive 63 per cent said they had suffered from anxiety or stress, 38 per cent said they resorted to self-censorship while 8 per cent lost their jobs. 47 per cent of the women admitted that they did not report the abuse and, when they did, it was because their media management was helpful.

The Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act should have changed everything. This is the only law that ‘criminalises’ workplace harassment. Under this law, there is a system in place for reporting the crime and for investigating it. But while the law was passed and devolved to the provinces by 2010, not many media organisations follow the directives. Some have been implementing the law only partially, while others not at all.

Only two or three organisations have a fully functioning inquiry committee as per law. Two leading media groups have implemented the law. Their inquiry committee takes every allegation seriously and aims to create an environment where women feel safe to work. While girls from lower socio-economic families are at risk, those who enter the field of journalism from better off backgrounds are also vulnerable.


Many women have had to give up their jobs only in order to get away from harassment. Urdu language and regional papers and broadcast channels are the worst when it comes to implementation of the law.

“There is always a culture that each media channel and publication reflects,” says a journalist from Rawalpindi. “From the ratio of male to female workers they keep, to the protection of women in the workplace, one can easily discern what kind of attitude the management has towards women, and subsequently sexual harassment.”

Mehmal Sarfaraz, a former member of the now defunct South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), says that back when there was no law to protect women, SAWM offered them a platform where they could complain about any kind of sexual harassment they were facing, among other issues. “We offered them psychological counselling and legal too, with the late Asma Jahangir being on board with us. But most girls said they cannot pursue.”

Sarfaraz observes that most of the women who are victims of sexual harassment belong from the lower socio-economic classes.

“Many of these girls also need the job [for more than career’s sake],” says Sarfaraz. “When they face sleaziness especially from their seniors, they tend to keep quiet rather than make waves and shout out about it. Vulnerability increases multifold because of class, for sure.”

This is partly the reason why there is more sexual harassment in Urdu and regional-language publications and channels. “Besides this, most of the staff there is male,” says Sarfaraz. “This I would say is across the newsrooms, regardless of language. Also within the media sector, it is rare that women are given senior positions responsible for operations, or editorial content.”

Farhana* was so sick of listening to crass comments that she was forced to protect her reputation. “I came from a very conservative family. For them it was the kind of situation where they were worried about what others would think even though I had been the one harassed. They ended up marrying me off in order to ‘protect’ my reputation,” she says. “My career, my entire professional identity all went down the drain. I had to reinvent myself.”

Sonia* from Lahore also belongs to a very conservative family. She had to work hard after her father passed away to support her siblings. The “nightmare” she had to face at work made matters worse. “A man in our office used to watch porn, then minimise it when I turned, but he made sure I caught some of it running anyway,” she recounts, still horrified by the experience.

Neither Farhana nor Sonia saw any warnings put up anywhere in the office premises warning against sexual harassment, or calling it a crime. No inquiry committee existed. Yet both of them worked in two of the biggest news channels.

“The only person I could complain to was my section head, a male, and I did not feel comfortable doing that,” says Farhana.

While girls from lower socio-economic families are at risk, those who enter the field of journalism from better off backgrounds are also vulnerable, says Sarfaraz. From listening to comments on the clothes they wear, to being subject to flirtatious advances, newly-recruited women probably have it worse than those who have been there since years.


“My boss used a call me ‘bachay’,” says FW*, who works in a leading channel, “but all of a sudden one day he sent me suggestive pictures and began telling me his doctor had advised him to find someone he could have sexual relations with, as he wasn’t on good terms with his wife.” There was no committee to report to and “we had already seen what happened when an internee had complained to the section head about some boys harassing her. The next day everyone on that floor knew which girl had complained against whom.”

It is not easy or even possible at times to accuse a senior colleague or a man in a powerful position.

One TV channel is owned by a man who has been accused often of being ‘forward’ with the girls. Yet everyone knows no inquiry committee could hold him guilty. (Perhaps for that reason that channel does not even have one).

“Sometimes it’s also better just to ignore this rather than to complain, because the backlash is too great,” says SM*, a show producer.

Sarfaraz says in many of the cases, women learn to deal with it the best they can. “If they can give them what is known as a ‘shut up call’, then it’s good, but so many of these predators, especially the influential and powerful ones just cannot be stopped.”

As a result, many girls have had to give up their jobs only in order to get away from harassment. And at the same time, those women who are from the more privileged class have to also use the ‘class card’ in order to get some kind of consideration from their colleagues.

Maria*, an associate producer in a Lahore-based TV channel, says that because her uncle was a well-known academic she was treated with a little more respect, but she could see how the other girls were being mistreated.

What are some workplaces doing?

It remains to be understood why certain workplaces have not implemented the law in their buildings. Even questioning those in management has not yielded any answers. Some admit that the committees are indeed long overdue.

A senior editor in a Lahore-based English daily says that an inquiry committee was formed just recently. “Honestly we received one only complaint and we took care of it,” he says. “Through impartial investigation, we found the accused to be guilty and he was fired.” However their workforce, he says, is approximately less than 20 per cent female. “Women are very few in our organisation, but we have still always provided them with a positive work environment.”

In some places, a kind of ‘moral code’ exists, that tends to work without the existence of an inquiry committee. Even after eight years, the owners of these media houses prefer to solve issues of harassment or anything pertaining to matters that arise when men and women work together, on their own.

For example, Afshan* works in a well-known Urdu daily newspaper based in Lahore. It is owned by one of the biggest media families of the city. There is no inquiry committee but the owner has established such a strict code in the building that, she claims, “no one even dares think of sexual harassment.” The flip side to this is that when a couple genuinely interested in each other were found eating from the same plate, they were both fired without even listening to their side of the story.

“It was a bit overdone, to take this kind of action only to prove their morals,” says Afshan. “Having said that, we have no harassment issues. All the women who come to work, young and old, feel extremely comfortable working here.”

A newspaper’s inquiry committee representative believes a major stumbling block in implementing the anti-harassment law is the general disregard for following laws, across the country. But a bigger reason is probably ‘self-preservation.’ “If indeed a sexual harassment case does come up, media owners and management are scared, more than anything else, of it coming out in public,” he says. “Instead of acting to protect their female employees, they will instead cover it up. This is why they don’t bother with establishing a committee.” He adds that sometimes senior people are involved in sexual harassment cases and the employers don’t want that to get official prominence.

There is a lot of fear among men too of being accused of something which was construed as sexual harassment contrary to intentions. “A lot of things are sometimes misconstrued or even misrepresented,” says a desk in-charge, who says he was accused by a girl of sexually harassing her. “In reality I had absolutely no inclination of doing anything like that. She just did not like to take directions from me as a senior and, in fact, wanted to be given the position herself. She also threatened me once saying she would complain about me and I told her to go ahead and do it, because I was sure she would not find anything.”

There was a thorough and fair investigation by the inquiry committee of the organisation — one that is famous for giving women the benefit of the doubt — and the result was that they did not find him guilty.

“After her accusation, I fell into deep depression for a very long time, because I was not that kind of a man,” he says. “These things should not be misused.”


Workplace harassment has caused severe duress for women who have filed a complaint against perpetrators. Some women have seen others fall victim to the culture of misogyny by becoming part of it themselves.

GH* who is a reporter in one of the Urdu dailies says that there are two or three older women journalists who sometimes lure young women journalists and drag them along to meet men in the position of power. After that, the men start pursuing those girls by themselves. “In turn, these older women end up receiving clothes or something as compensation. I have been at the receiving end of such a situation but backed out just in time,” she says.

Afshan says that there is a growing acceptance of a sort of ‘casting couch’ culture in the industry. “It’s not always that they want a position,” she says, “but certain women are so vulnerable and so in need of a job that they end up tolerating harassment.”

There was a time, she says, when being spotted eating with your senior colleague or having coffee with him was considered taboo, but today it is more acceptable. “They won’t always ask for big favours either, so it becomes easier for women to do. They would ask for a cup of coffee with them, or to discuss something in their rooms, and women end up falling for this because they fear that if they speak out they will be ostracized.”

Journalist Shiraz Hasnat feels a woman can more than often control the situation if she knows where to draw the line from day one. “Some of our cameramen and NLEs are under-exposed and come from less educated backgrounds, and inevitably they do act in inappropriate ways,” he says. “Occasionally, I have had women come up to me and say they don’t want to travel or sit next to a certain man, so then it’s up to me as head of the department to protect them.”

Generally, the complaints that Hasnat receives, however, are of the nature that the attitude of these men is sexist towards working women. “I’d say sexual harassment starts from there. Initially it’s not sexual, but more like over-directing, or taunts, or pressurising the woman. At this stage, women should tell them off. I never even close the office door when I am talking to a woman, in order to make her feel comfortable.”

But why do men do it?

“It’s the mentality, it’s part of the culture that surrounds them,” says Hasnat. “A man who has seen his family’s women work would not do this.” He reiterates that if women ask for undue professional favours, such as having a man go the extra mile for her, instead of doing her own work, these men are in a way encouraged.


Working towards gender equality in the professional world remains an ongoing battle across the world. In a lnadmark move, Pakistan became the first country in South Asia to make special laws on sexual harassment. The law went through a 10-year gestation period, and had some esteemed women’s rights activists behind it, including Asma Jahangir, fighting for it to be passed in both assemblies.

Dr Fouzia Saeed, author of Working with Sharks, helped draft the bill. Unlike the other countries, says Dr Saeed, Pakistan has had its own ‘#MeToo’ campaign, but people don’t realise how it came about years ago. “In 2012, where we had a nationwide campaign, and in every gathering, women would come up and openly state incidents. We then went on with it in a very responsible manner. We made our laws and we got them implemented. We believe in due process for both men and women.

“I fully understand that when the harasser is a giant it is very difficult to bring him down and it is only social condemning that can bring him down but I am not in favour of media trials. There should be a formal complaint, investigation and accountability, preferably in confidence so that none of the party loses dignity while it is going on. Once the results are out then the social condemning is okay as we have to change the mindset.

“Among [print] journalists, there is a clear improvement,” she says. “But the problem is severe. The TV channels were the last ones to come on board and so many of them have still not even complied with the law. I think the journalist fraternity should wake up to this and actively clean out their own houses.”

In this regard, Saeed feels the Islamabad Press Club has taken many positive steps but there is a lot more to be done by the journalists. “There has been a very big change in mindset and especially the courage levels of working women. Now they feel that their dignity is their right. Before, sexual harassment was ‘buri baat’ [something bad] but now it is a punishable crime.”

Saeed also argues for following the process as outlined in the law rather than going directly for short-cuts. Those who want to appeal the decision of their workplace committees can appeal to the ombudsman’s office and after that ask the president to review. “We created the ombudsman office so that the woman doesn’t have to go through years of litigation,” says Dr Fouzia. “They are time-bound to give a quick remedy as per law but they are not doing so.”

Meanwhile, Barrister Mirza Taimur, who is fighting a case on behalf of a woman journalist, says that until lawyers and employees in an organisation do not receive proper training on sexual harassment, the problem will never be reduced. “We see campaigns and ads by Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) about corruption, but we rarely see campaigns about this law,” he says. “Lawyers don’t even know how to fight such cases.”

As far as Tanzeela is concerned, she will never give up her fight. “I have contacts, a forum where I can speak,” she says. “But it makes me feel very bad about the hundreds of women who don’t have support or space and so keep silent. But I won’t give up.”