The journalists being threatened with artificial intelligence

The first time Gharidah Farooqi became a target of tech-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) was in 2014. She was working as a reporter at Samaa, a private Pakistani television channel, and covering cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan’s anti-government protest that set off from the eastern city of Lahore in Punjab province to the country’s capital, Islamabad. 

“I was there 24/7 on the ground and would go to the hotel just to take a few hours of rest,” she told Index.

“My morphed photos from the field coverage were posted on social media along with sexist and vulgar comments,” recalled Farooqi, who is currently working as a senior anchor at GTV, another private Pakistani TV channel. 

“For the longest of time, I ignored it, but not in [my] wildest imagination had I foreseen a Frankenstein in the making,” said Farooqi, adding that people were not used to seeing a woman reporter in the field. 

“For them it was just shughal [making fun] of me,” she said.

A decade later, the attacks have not stopped. In fact, they have taken on an even uglier and more dangerous shape through generative artificial intelligence (AI), which uses models to create new content.

“Generative AI is making TFGBV even more difficult to address,” explained Nighat Dad, a lawyer and internet activist who runs the not-for-profit organisation Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), which helps Pakistanis fight against online harassment.

She said that this technology gives the creator power to change the original image, text, audio or video very quickly, in a way that makes it hard to identify whether it is an original or a deepfake, terming it “photoshopping in a more sophisticated manner”.

For Farooqi, “the period between the calm and chaos” is so short, she barely gets any respite. Along with the organised campaign by political parties’ supporters, there is a daily barrage of abuse on her social media pages, she said, adding: “It is not mere trolling; trolling is a very harmless word compared to what I’m facing.”

She’s not the only one to have had a taste of this form of violence. 

“The prime targets are of course women, although a few men have also been targeted,” said Farooqi. Many have reached out to her, “mostly for emotional support” and to ask her how to seek legal help. 

In her experience, female colleagues have always supported each other, and supported her in particular, for which she says she’s “eternally grateful”.

“Gharidah faces [more] attacks than any other journalist,” said Dad, who is constantly being contacted for help by women journalists. 

The DRF has a helpline and a resource kit that offers a list of places offering help. Between January and November 2023, 22 female and 14 male journalists reached out to DRF with complaints including blasphemy accusations, abusive messages, bullying, blackmailing, censorship, defamation, GBV, impersonation, online stalking, phishing, sexual harassment and threats of physical violence.

While Farooqi has learnt to navigate the legal mechanisms and lodge complaints, not everyone will be as astute in warding off cyber harassment.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 “carves out certain offences such as morphing of pictures or videos etc., which is done using tech tools”, according to Farieha Aziz, a cybercrime expert and co-founder of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights. 

But the “manner in which online harassment cases are executed and dealt with, despite complaints being lodged and arrests being made, remains problematic due to a lack of priority by the Federal Investigation Agency [FIA]. Either these women do not hear back or there is no progress on complaints they’ve made, at various stages of the case,” Aziz said.

After filing complaints eight times, Farooqi said, it was only on her most recent complaint (made last month), that any action was taken by the FIA when her personal details – her home address and her telephone number – were made public.

“I started getting anonymous calls and messages threatening me with rape and even death warnings. It was the first time that the agency took swift action and got the posts deleted,” she said.

The Karachi-based Centre of Excellence in Journalism has produced a safety kit for women journalists “on how to protect themselves and where and how to report,” Aziz told Index, adding that they also provide counselling.

“There has been pervasive and persistent online harassment, sexualised and otherwise gendered disinformation faced by women journalists in Pakistan, with many being threatened with physical assault and offline violence. We’ve witnessed multiple incidents of female journalists’ private information being leaked online with what we can say are well-planned and directed efforts to silence them and [which] resulted in stalking and offline harassment,” said a statement by the Pakistan-based Network of Journalists for Digital Rights earlier this month, condemning the use of TFGBV and generative AI to attack female journalists.

Farooqi considers generative AI as yet another weapon to silence and subdue women journalists. Claiming to be a woman with “nerves of steel”, she said she has to be thick-skinned to be able to survive these attacks. To keep sane, she advises people to never engage with attackers.

Pakistan election surprise highlights ways to fight censorship

The media in Pakistan, a 240-million strong nation, has seldom been free ever since it removed its colonial shackles from the British Raj in 1947. Spates of draconian laws to curb the press were imposed in the three martial law periods, as well as during the democratic governments, spanning the 77-year life of this South Asian nation. These attacks reached new heights in recent weeks, as Pakistan voted in a tense general election. Critical voices from press and civil society were strangled. The military establishment tried to control the media narrative, while internet blackouts became commonplace. And yet despite this, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) backed independent candidates bagged the largest number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies, in an upset for the military establishment.

“This is peoples’ reaction against the actions,” Mazhar Abbas, a senior award-winning journalist and anchor, told Index. “This is an eye-opener for those who think the suppression could serve their purpose.”

Independent candidates backed by the PTI, the party of Imran Khan, won 93 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly or lower house of 264 seats, but will not be allowed to form a government as they were forced to run as individuals. Parties of thrice-prime minister Nawaz Sharif secured 75 seats followed by the Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) with 54 seats. Given these votes the most likely outcome is a coalition government.

“This is a people’s rebellion against the establishment that keeps curbing the media to promote parties of their own choices,” Aziz Sanghur, a senior journalist and author, said. “This is the 21st century and the age of IT, we must not forget.”

Facing fierce clampdowns on their social media accounts, as well as attempts to impede their election campaigns, the contesting candidates had to be on their toes. They managed to outmanoeuvre the censorship through a variety of means including using all of the social media platforms to their advantage.

“Our social media and IT team kept struggling against the closure of data services and our social media accounts, [by] creating VPN connections and using other means,” Yasir Baloch, a PTI candidate for the Sindh provincial assembly told Index.

Members of his constituency extended their help to Baloch.

“On the election day when data service and mobile phone service was switched off, the people in our constituency volunteered to give our team access to their home wi-fi connections. That was a huge favour for us,” he said.

Conventional canvassing methods also had to be re-assessed.

“We managed to hold our meetings [within] the compound wall instead of open places as we had to face the police crackdowns on our rallies,” he said. “We carried our campaign door to door and women played a leading role.”

But it will be hard for Pakistan to establish media freedoms.

“There have been many draconian laws that governed the media and press, but this time ‘invisible’ hands unleashed gagging censorship, which is unprecedented,” said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a professor and author of several books on Pakistani media and a media practitioner.

Khan was referring to the constant interventions from the powerful military establishment. Many journalists working for the national television channels spoke to Index on the condition of anonymity. They confirmed the practice of daily intervention by the media wing of the military, known as Inter Services Public Relations or ISPR.

“When they [dictated to] us the news packages in the beginning, I predicted that the days were not far off and that they would dictate the whole rundown,” said a senior journalist, who works with Geo TV, the country’s top private television channel.

“My fears came true as now we get dictation from ISPR on a daily basis, with the advice that the news must be broadcast without attribution,” he said.

Empirical surveys with senior journalists at many independent news channels confirmed this, including ARY, Neo News, Abb Takk, Aaj TV, Hum TV, 92 News, KTN, Express TV, 24 News and Dawn News. These are all top-ranking television channels, watched widely across Pakistan.

“We are obliged to run that news to protect our job,” one journalist said.

The party that won the last general election and was in power from 2018 until 2022 remained a pivotal target of the censorship. Imran Khan, the former cricketer turned politician, led his PTI party. Coming into power for the first time in 2018, Khan had a strong backing from the military establishment, a channel that inherently matters more than popular votes in the country. Catalysing the military support, Khan made full use of censorship and media clampdowns to suppress independent journalists as well as political opponents. Legal cases were registered against media houses, journalists and social media commentators for raising voices against his policies and political discourse.

“Khan in fact torpedoed the financial structure of the media industry, [which] was a fatal blow to the free press,” Tauseef Ahmed Khan said.

Geo News, the most influential TV channel in the country which was critical of Imran Khan and supportive of Nawaz Sharif, was cast out of government sponsored advertisements in 2020, the biggest source of revenue to the industry. It was taken off air in different cities and parts of the country, including the cantonment areas, administered by the military.

But the tables turned when Khan was ousted in 2022 in a no-confidence vote after a fallout with the military. He was jailed for corruption, and later for leaking state secrets.

Tit-for-tat censorship ensued under the new under-the-radar sanctions. Khan’s party was declared proscribed and naming it or Khan on television channels was banned by the military-backed coalition government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

No let-up was seen in censorship by the care-taker government appointed in August 2023, which only had a mandate to hold general elections in Pakistan. The caretaker government under Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar took more stringent measures to black out Khan and his party from the mainstream media.

The undeclared news boycott of Khan’s party continued until the election day on 8 February 2024, while its supporters ran a robust campaign on social media. His party was denied the opportunity to contest the election under the pretext of the party’s failure to hold intra-party elections, a constitutional prerequisite for a political party to become eligible for general election participation.

Frustrating the party’s social media ‘warriors’, the authorities clamped down by switching off internet networks countrywide repeatedly over recent years, usually targeting social media or messaging services.

“Curbing internet access during elections strikes at democracy’s heart, betraying human rights,” Surfshark, a media watchdog said in a statement.

On the very day of elections on 8 February, a complete shutdown of mobile services crippled journalists in the field who were covering the elections. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the state-regulator, said it had decided to do so in view of the worsening law and order situation.

“The decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on election day is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty International reacted.

The failures of the mainstream media alarms media pundits, who see an ominous trend in the coming weeks.

“This is very unfortunate that the mainstream media seem to have lost its credibility against the social media in the country,” said Sohail Sangi, a veteran journalist, who has served imprisonment in dictatorial regimes for raising his voice for press freedom.

It is feared that propaganda will replace factual news.

“We know that on social media, largely unauthentic info goes viral and its impact is huge,” Tauseef Ahmed Khan said.

“This might transform the media landscape in the country if things are not fixed.”

2024, the year that four billion go the polls

Happy New Year – I hope…

Entering a new year typically encourages us to reflect on the past 12 months and consider the impact of what is likely to happen in the next 12. Depressingly, 2023 was yet another year marked by authoritarians clamping down on freedom of expression and harnessing the power of digital technology to persecute, harass and undermine those who challenge them.

Not only did the tyrants, despots and their allies attempt to again crack down on any seemingly independent thought within their own territories, several also sought to weaponise the legal system at home and abroad through the use of SLAPPs. Several EU member states, especially the Republic of Ireland, as well as the United Kingdom have found themselves at the centre of these legal attacks on freedom of expression.

SLAPPs weren’t the only threat to freedom of expression in 2023 though – from the crackdown on protesters in Iran, to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the continuing repressive actions of Putin and Lukashenka, the end of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, the increasingly restrictions imposed by Modi, the latest war in the Middle East and the ongoing attacks on journalists in South America.

My depressing list could go on and on. However, we desperately need to find some hope in the world, so Index on Censorship ended 2023 with our campaign entitled “Moments of Freedom”, highlighting the good in the world so let’s carry on with that optimism. A new year brings new beginnings after all. So let’s focus on the new moments of light which will hopefully touch our lives this year.

Half the world’s population will go to the polls this year. That’s an extraordinary four billion people. Each with their own aspirations for their families, hopes for their country and dreams of a more secure world.

As a politician it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love elections. The best campaigns are politics at their purest, when the needs and aspirations of the electorate should be centre stage. Elections provide a moment when values are on the line. How people want to be governed, what rights they wish to advance and how they hold the powerful to account. These are all actioned through the ballot box.

There are elections taking place in countries significant for Index because of their likely impact on freedom of expression and the impact the results may have on the current internationally agreed norms, including Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Russia, Brazil, the European Union, the USA and the United Kingdom. And given current events we can only hope for elections in Israel to be added to the list. The list goes on with each election posing different questions and the results having a different impact on the current world order.

Many other human rights organisations will talk about the importance of these elections for international stability, and rightly so. At Index we will focus on what these elections mean for the dissidents, journalists, artists and academics. Our unique network of reporters and commentators around the world will allow us to bring you the hidden stories taking place and will highlight the threats and opportunities each result poses to freedom of expression. As with 2023, 2024 will be a year where Index hands a megaphone to dissidents so their voice is amplified.

The rallying cry for 2024 must be: “Your freedom needs you!” If you are one of the four billion remember that your ballot is the shield against would-be despots and tyrants. It is the ultimate democratic duty and responsibility and the consequences go far beyond your immediate neighbourhood – so use it and use it wisely.

Contents – Having the last laugh: The comedians who won’t be silenced


The Winter 2023 issue of Index looks at how comedians are being targeted by oppressive regimes around the world in order to crack down on dissent. In this issue, we attempt to uncover the extent of the threat to comedy worldwide, highlighting examples of comedians being harassed, threatened or silenced by those wishing to censor them.

The writers in this issue report on example of comedians being targeted all over the globe, from Russia to Uganda to Brazil. Laughter is often the best medicine in dark times, making comedy a vital tool of dissent. When the state places restrictions on what people can joke about and suppresses those who breach their strict rules, it's no laughing matter.

Up Front

Still laughing, just, by Jemimah Steinfeld: When free speech becomes a laughing matter.

The Index, by Mark Frary: The latest in the world of free expression, from Russian elections to a memorable gardener


Silent Palestinians, by Samir El-Youssef: Voices of reason are being stamped out.

Soundtrack for a siege, by JP O'Malley: Bosnia’s story of underground music, resistance and Bono.

Libraries turned into Arsenals, by Sasha Dovzhyk: Once silent spaces in Ukraine are pivotal in times of war.

Shot by both sides, by Martin Bright: The Russian writers being cancelled.

A sinister news cycle, by Winthrop Rodgers: A journalist speaks out from behind bars in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Smoke, fire and a media storm, by John Lewinski: Can respect for a local culture and media scrutiny co-exist? The aftermath of disaster in Hawaii has put this to the test.

Message marches into lives and homes, by Anmol Irfan: How Pakistan's history of demonising women's movements is still at large today.

A snake devouring its own tail, by JS Tennant: A Cuban journalist faces civic death, then forced emigration.

A 'seasoned dissident' speaks up, by Martin Bright: Writing against Russian authority has come full circle for Gennady Katsov.

Special Report: Having the last laugh - The comedians who won't be silenced

And God created laughter (so fuck off), by Shalom Auslander: On failing to be serious, and trading rabbis for Kafka.

The jokes that are made - and banned - in China, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Journalist turned comedian Vicky Xu is under threat after exposing Beijing’s crimes but in comedy she finds a refuge.

Giving Putin the finger, by John Sweeney: Reflecting on a comedy festival that tells Putin to “fuck off”.

Meet the Iranian cartoonist who had to flee his country, by Daisy Ruddock: Kianoush Ramezani is laughing in the face of the Ayatollah.

The SLAPP stickers, by Rosie Holt and Charlie Holt: Sometimes it’s not the autocrats, or the audience, that comedians fear, it’s the lawyers.

This great stage of fools, by Danson Kahyana: A comedy troupe in Uganda pushes the line on acceptable speech.

Joke's on Lukashenka speaking rubbish Belarusian. Or is it?, by Maria Sorensen: Comedy under an authoritarian regime could be hilarious, it it was allowed.

Laughing matters, by Daisy Ruddock: Knock knock. Who's there? The comedy police.

Taliban takeover jokes, by Spozhmai Maani and Rizwan Sharif: In Afghanistan, the Taliban can never by the punchline.

Turkey's standups sit down, by Kaya Ge: Turkey loses its sense of humour over a joke deemed offensive.

An unfunny double act, by Thiện Việt: A gold-plated steak and a maternal slap lead to problems for two comedians in Vietnam.

Dragged down, by Tilewa Kazeem: Nigeria's queens refuse to be dethroned.

Turning sorrow into satire, by Zahra Hankir: A lesson from Lebanon: even terrible times need comedic release.

'Hatred has won, the artist has lost', by Salil Tripathi: Hindu nationalism and cries of blasphemy are causing jokes to land badly in India.

Did you hear the one about...? No, you won't have, by Alexandra Domenech: Putin has strangled comedy in Russia, but that doesn't stop Russian voices.

Of Conservatives, cancel culture and comics, by Simone Marques: In Brazil, a comedy gay Jesus was met with Molotov cocktails.

Standing up for Indigenous culture, by Katie Dancey-Downs: Comedian Janelle Niles deals in the uncomfortable, even when she'd rather not.


Your truth or mine, by Bobby Duffy: Debate: Is there a free speech crisis on UK campuses?

All the books that might not get written, by Andrew Lownie: Freedom of information faces a right royal problem.

An image or a thousand words?, by Ruth Anderson: When to look at an image and when to look away.


Lukashenka's horror dream, by Alhierd Bacharevič and Mark Frary: The Belarusian author’s new collection of short stories is an act of resistance. We publish one for the first time in English.

Lost in time and memory, by Xue Tiwei: In a new short story, a man finds himself haunted by the ghosts of executions.

The hunger games, by Stephen Komarnyckyj and Mykola Khvylovy: The lesson of a Ukrainian writer’s death must be remembered today.

The woman who stopped Malta's mafia taking over, by Paul Caruana Galizia: Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son reckons with his mother’s assassination.