Arguing with young women about the contents of their placards, taking up space meant for protesting performers, and most recently, threatening transgender protestors with physical violence — a quick look at how male journalists cover women's rights protests on the ground reveals a disturbing pattern.
It isn’t surprising that the people covering such protests and marches are men, given that some estimates show that women journalists make up less than five percent of the industry. The number of women in leadership positions is somewhat similar, i.e. less than 11 percent.
Men are tasked with covering the events as things are, but show up with their baggage, preconceived notions and zero research into the agenda of the organisers.
Newsrooms, a breeding ground for misogyny
The prevalent attitudes and misogyny of most newsrooms in Pakistan spills over at these events.
“Their depiction of things like the anti-rape protest or Aurat March have little to do with us and more to do with the media itself,” says Syeda Mehr, a volunteer with Aurat March.
She has a point.
Coverage of many women’s issues sees the same kind of patterns. “We’re not flattered enough to think that they hate us that much, it’s their general perception of women,” Mehr adds.
This bias shapes what parts of these protests are covered and how.
Given that media corporations are constantly evaluating what sells, and misogyny surely does, it isn’t surprising instead of objective reporting, the news is obsessed with things like ‘Mera jism meri marzi’, the interpretation of which has been twisted to attract more eyeballs.
“But that is seldom picked up by mainstream media,” Mehr notes, pointing out that the media sells the ideas of a certain kind of ‘azad aurat' who has taken to the streets to destroy society for her own evil gains.
In the field
Many male journalists make protestors and attendees uncomfortable. Ajwah, who volunteers with Aurat March, says that male journalists show up with seriously entitled attitudes.
“They refuse to listen and take up space that isn’t meant for them. If you ask them not to cover something or someone they say ‘then why are you doing it’ as though our presence is just a spectacle created for their entertainment and consumption,” she says.
The team that manages the media finds it harder and harder to do crowd control. Aurat March has disseminated guidelines on conduct for media, but they largely go ignored.
Media houses have been repeatedly encouraged to consume Aurat March’s ethical guidelines before attending. They are even encouraged to send women reporters. In the absence of any measures from the media itself, the volunteers are forced to intervene when they see media personnel going after an attendee and making them uncomfortable.
“Male reporters get personally invested in proving their interviewee wrong. They keep talking over attendees and become argumentative. That is not what the protestors show up for,” Ajwah says.
Instead of providing objective coverage, men reporting on the ground make these spaces unsafe for those attending.
Rameeza Ahmad was present at the Lahore protest held to highlight the motorway rape incident on September 13.
In response to a journalist insisting it was the mother’s responsibility to teach her children not to rape, Rameeza hit back that a father was also responsible.
Such is the tenacity of male journalists that they cannot seem to get over their arguments even after the event is done and dusted. When she tweeted a video of the interview, the journalist responded.
“This guy replied to my tweet with this video saying he still believes it’s a mom's responsibility to raise a kid and teach them manners since his mom imparted values to him of respecting women,” she recalls.
“Do better. Learn basic journalism ethics,” she adds.
Alina, another attendee, spoke about the male journalists that show up only to disrupt the conversation. She spoke of the many journalists who had no concept of personal space and ended up trampling women in their quest for coverage.
“When you tell protesting women to move just for your shot, it helps no one. When women were performing the Urdu rendition of ‘the rapists is you’ the male reporters were hard to control. Of course, good stories and content require footage, but at the cost of what? Silencing women?” she asks.
Alina also pointed out the biased decisions in who men choose to interview. At the Liberty protest in Lahore, in a crowd of 300-400 women, men were being interviewed.
“I’m not saying men can’t be survivors. But this particular issue was one of women’s rights, given the CCPO’s comments and sexist responses from our society,” Alina asserts.
In some cases, the behaviour of the men on ground was downright exploitive.
It has become a pattern for male journalists to seek out noticeably young girls to talk on camera. According to the volunteers at Aurat March, they do so without asking for consent and with no regard for how well the interviewee understands the implications of being on screen.
“This is not fair and it’s a clear violation of the power dynamics of an adult male speaking to, and often arguing with, a young girl,” Alina says.
While some reporters made it a point to take permission before asking for comments or pictures, Alina notes that in a crowd of 30-40 reporters, it was only two or three that bothered to do so.
Women attending have now been clearly told not to allow someone to take their pictures if they do not want to be photographed. When men refuse to respect boundaries, women are always told to be responsible for their own safety —even at women-centric protests.
Mehr remembers having to reach out to many media houses to remove pictures they had taken without permission.
“They think that if a woman has left her home to protest then she is public property and they can do whatever they want. Journalism has all these ethics and rules, but men are so invasive —and there’s no gender sensitivity— that they don’t keep these things in mind,” she laments.
There are real life consequences for some women who attend the march and are photographed. Apart from the digital media witch hunts that begin against several women with posters people have troubling stomaching, there are attendees that can face violence for simply showing up.
“I know women who go home and face violence because they attended. Media has a role in highlighting these issues, but that role gets diminished when your reporting causes harm,” Mehr says.
As a result of their overbearing presence, many women even refuse to speak to male journalists. Some ask for proof of identification before agreeing to speak. The fear of safety is obvious in their actions.
Where do women journalists fit?
At the face of it, simply asking for more women to cover seems like a fitting solution. However, the reality is that without gender-sensitivity training, and an overhaul of redundant editorial policies, this will not work. Misogyny sells, and existing structures do nothing to challenge this.
Moreover, female journalists are just as susceptible and can be just as misogynistic as men.
“If your entire department, from the sub-editor up to the owner, have a misogynistic agenda and policy then that will reflect in the coverage,” Alina explains, noting that simply sending a woman won’t make a difference.
Some women journalists do engage with marchers and protestors. And they are committed to curating proper pieces, with genuine journalism. Unfortunately, that is still exceedingly rare and largely because there are not many platforms allowing it.
Moreover, where women journalists do try to present the other side, they too face a barrage of abuse and attacks.
When female journalists are slightly subjective, they are constantly questioned. But male journalists with all their misogyny and sexism are not questioned. “We are told this is how the world works,” Mehr says.
Not all gloom?
While traditional media seems averse to change, the same cannot be said for new media houses.
Digital news platforms are in no mood to conform. Raza Rumi, the brains behind Naya Daur Media house, says that his platform makes an active effort to address sexism in the industry.
“Our managing editor is a woman, and she covers all such events. She brought in a gendered editorial policy to the table and consistently informs the newsroom operations,” he says, while adding that the platform tries to engage with more women freelancers as well.
At events like the Aurat March, this team went in with the perspective that it was a vehicle of social transformation.
Despite this, it does not change the fact that a huge part of our industry is being run by men for men. The narrative refuses to change or evolve.
During the protest, a young woman showed up with a placard which said: “I was here six months ago, nothing has changed.” And a look at the media personnel covering the protests seemed to confirm that nothing had, in fact, changed.