PESHAWAR -- Pakistanis experiencing harassment online now have a place to turn for help.
The Cyber Harassment Helpline, launched by the Lahore-based Digital Rights Foundation last December, provides advice and assistance to victims of harassment on social media or on other internet platforms.
The problem is especially acute for women, said Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation.
"We recently released the first four-month report on the helpline, which received 535 calls for help, out of which ... about 62% were from females," she told Pakistan Forward.
Most of the complaints to the Cyber Harassment Helpline were about problems using Facebook.
"Out of the 535 complaints, most were about unsolicited messages on Facebook, blackmail, non-consensual use of information and hacked accounts," said Dad, who is a lawyer recognised for her activism regarding internet safety.
Dad was named one of Time magazine's next-generation leaders in 2015 for helping Pakistani men and women fight online harassment. She also won the Atlantic Council Digital Freedom Award and Dutch government's Human Rights Tulip award in 2016.
"Human rights in the online spaces should be the same as in the offline spaces," Dad said.
Cyber Harassment Helpline
The Cyber Harassment Helpline's toll-free number, 0800-39393, operates from 9am to 5pm on weekdays. The helpline also is accessible via email at [email protected]
The helpline is Pakistan's first resource dedicated to addressing issues related to online abuse and violence and provides a free, safe, gender-sensitive and confidential service, according to Dad.
"The staff at the helpline provide legal advice as well as psychological counseling to the complainants who are in shock and fear after facing harassment," she said.
A majority of the complaints were reported from Punjab (41.3%), followed by 23.9% who did not disclose their location.
The helpline also got calls from Sindh (17.8%), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) (4.7%), Balochistan (1.3%), Pakistani-controlled Kashmir (0.7%), Islamabad (10.10%) and outside Pakistan (0.2%).
"After analysing the four-month report, the Digital Rights Foundation proposes gender sensitisation training for the staff of the Federal Investigation Agency [FIA] and expanding the agency's National Response Centre for Cyber Crime to more cities to give access to the women and men in smaller and remote locations," Dad said.
Tracking down cyber-crime
The FIA is tasked with investigating cyber-crimes and has relevant units in Pakistan's major cities.
"The FIA has started registering cases of cyber-crimes, and few have been arrested in various cases," FIA Assistant Director in KP Shahid Ilyas told Pakistan Forward.
Strict punishments exist for various online violations and harassment, he said, adding that internet users have started approaching the FIA with complaints of blackmail.
Depending on the cyber-crime, perpetrators can face jail time of up to five to seven years, Ilyas said.
"There are a number of complaints of harassment, so a helpline to deal with these issues is really commendable," Amina Khan, a journalist from KP, told Pakistan Forward.
"Awareness needs to be created among the social media users about the helpline, as most of the people cannot contact the FIA [directly]," she said, adding that victims either do not know how to contact the authorities or are afraid to report abuse.
Raising awareness about the helpline is especially important for women and girls as their privacy is at stake, she said.
Internet freedom and abuse
The helpline comes as Pakistan struggles with the balance between internet freedom and abuse.
In addition to addressing online harassment, Pakistani security forces have in recent months cracked down on criminal and terrorist behaviour online.
On May 8, the Sindh Province Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) began investigating when intermediate school examination papers for the province appeared on social media via a WhatsApp group before the exams' scheduled date.
The CTD became involved because only it, among law enforcement agencies in Pakistan, has the technology to trace this type of activity on phones and using social media.
At least 15 WhatsApp groups were identified as sharing the leaked papers, said CTD Senior Superintendent of Police Naveed Khwaja, according to Dawn. The CTD arrested a number of suspects in Karachi, Hyderabad and Mithi, the report said.
In another case, university student Naureen Leghari, 20, fell prey to "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) recruiters though social media, she told reporters May 8.
Leghari went missing in February, but the CTD rounded her up in a raid in Lahore in April.
Authorities are combing through the social media users and pages involved in recruiting the young woman to break up the network and arrest the perpetrators behind it.
Expanding cyber-crime investigations
KP Police also have requested the help of the FIA in a few recent cyber-crime cases, according to authorities.
Notably, police asked the FIA's cyber-crime wing to check the social media accounts of Mashal Khan, the university student lynched by an angry mob in April in Mardan District over false accusations of blasphemy on social media.
KP Police plan to set up a special unit in the Forensic Science Laboratory in Peshawar to investigate cyber-crimes and are seeking qualified applicants to join the staff.
"We are setting up a new section to examine cyber-crime cases in our own laboratory without seeking help from others," Rabnawaz Khan, director of the lab, told Pakistan Forward.