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When the #MeToo movement went viral globally in 2017, it was largely lauded for breaking the culture of silence around sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. But alongside this exposure came a deluge of online hate, and in Pakistan in particular, the backlash could be weaponized by the law.
In April 2018, Meesha Shafi, a prominent singer and actor, posted on Twitter, accusing Ali Zafar, one of Pakistan’s most famous pop stars and actors, of sexual harassment. Subsequently, other accusers came forward on the platform, describing more instances of his alleged harassment, all of which he denied, while others tweeted in support of Shafi.
The accusations set off years of litigation, a media frenzy of misinformation, and highlighted the ways defamation cases can impact accusations of sexual harassment, particularly in a country where women and vulnerable groups have long mistrusted authorities in addressing gender-based crimes. In 2020 alone, cases of rape and violence against women in Pakistan made international headlines. An estimated 1,000 “honor” killings take place every year, which largely impact women. And in most instances, justice is hard to come by for the victims.
Online misinformation appeared to be a key feature in this particular story, leading readers who were following the accusations to ask Snopes to break down the facts. Many online assumed — and Zafar himself would argue — that he was innocent in the eyes of the law. Zafar claimed that the accusations were a coordinated social media campaign against him. Zafar also suggested that Shafi was trying to use the attention to raise her profile, move to Canada, and be “another Malala.”
Given the case’s prominence in the region, and the implications it could have for the #MeToo movement, we noticed that not many people actually knew what was going on with the case in the courts. We reached out to the legal teams on both sides. Below, we unpack what we know from court records and interviews.
He Said / She Said / They Said
It began with a tweet. In April 2018, Shafi tweeted that she had been harassed by Zafar on multiple occasions, including at a musicians’ jam session. Zafar categorically denied the allegations and said he would be taking the matter to court. A member of Shafi’s legal team, Saqib Jillani, told Snopes that Shafi had no choice but to make the allegations public, because she was being “forced” to work with Zafar on a television music competition, “Pepsi Battle of the Bands.”
Sharing this because I believe that by speaking out about my own experience of sexual harassment, I will break the culture of silence that permeates through our society. It is not easy to speak out.. but it is harder to stay silent. My conscience will not allow it anymore #MeToo pic.twitter.com/iwex7e1NLZ
— MEESHA SHAFI (@itsmeeshashafi) April 19, 2018
After the tweet, a number of women came forward with accusations against Zafar on Twitter, which were shared and retweeted. Actress Iffat Omar also tweeted in favor of Shafi, and a number of men, including hip-hop artist Ali Gul Pir, also spoke out in support.
Several cases were filed against various parties. Below is a summary of the key cases, investigations, and relevant events:
Sexual Harassment Case: In mid-2018, soon after tweeting, Shafi filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Office of the Ombudsperson of Punjab, which enforces the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010. The ombudsperson dismissed her case on a technicality in May 2018, and she took it to the governor of Punjab, and then filed a petition before the Lahore High Court challenging the governor’s decision against her on the technicality. At the time of this writing, the case has been pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the last 12 months and had only one hearing.
Why was the sexual harassment complaint dismissed? Under section 2(f) of the law, Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, “‘Employee’ means a regular or contractual employee whether employed on daily, weekly, monthly or hourly basis, and includes an intern or an apprentice.” Shafi, in her complaint, had attached an agreement between her and the events company, JS Events, that organized a concert where she and Zafar performed. She claimed that she was sexually harassed by Zafar when they were both working for the company.
The ombudsperson rejected Shafi’s complaint on the basis that her relationship with Zafar was not between two employees, as she did not have an “employment relationship” with JS Events. The official stated: “The complainant has no locus standi to submit a complaint under the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010, she not being an employee, as per the definition contained in section 2(f).” This dismissal highlighted the many limitations defining employer-employee relations under the law, leading to questions from activists about how sexual harassment laws would work with freelancers, domestic staff, and others working in an informal economy.
Civil Defamation Case: In June 2018, Zafar filed a defamation lawsuit against Shafi under the Civil Defamation Ordinance 2002, asking for her to pay 1 billion rupees (more than $6 million U.S. dollars) in compensation for damaging his reputation with her “libelous” and “defamatory tweet,” which he said caused financial losses to him along with mental anguish. This lawsuit stated:
… The Defendant has misused the #Metoo movement which is a legitimate and an extremely credible movement to her aid. The Defendant did not ever suffer from sexual harassment at the hands of the Plaintiff or from the words of the Plaintiff thus to seek shelter under the #Metoo umbrella is attributable as malafide. Apparently, this is a well thought out conspiracy that the Defendant opted for social media and not a Court of law to accuse the Plaintiff as she would be bound to prove her accusations in a Court of law whereas on social media the result is the stark opposite.
In January 2019, a court issued a gag order, requested by Zafar as a part of his lawsuit, preventing Shafi from making negative remarks against Zafar on all media platforms, including social media. Zafar subsequently made a number of media appearances in 2019 suggesting that the media look into whether Shafi was trying to become “another Malala”— a reference to Malala Yousufzai, a Pakistani activist for girls’ education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate — arguing that he had been considered innocent by the law due to the dismissal of the sexual harassment complaint.
It should be noted that Shafi also filed a defamation suit against Zafar. Her case has not been heard yet.
Both Zafar and Shafi have recorded their statements before the court, but Shafi has yet to be cross-examined by Zafar’s lawyers, a process Jillani said was delayed by December 2019 clashes between lawyers and doctors in Lahore, followed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Hearings for the case resumed in September 2020, when at the same time the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) began criminal proceedings against some of Shafi’s witnesses, a development we will address in the next section.
Criminal Defamation Investigation: In November 2018, Zafar filed a complaint with the FIA — a national law enforcement agency in Pakistan responsible for investigating, among other crimes, cybercrimes — alleging many individuals on social media were posting “threats and defamatory materials” against him. These individuals’ posts had expressed support for Shafi, and also included the women who shared stories of Zafar’s alleged harassment of them or others. He also claimed that fake accounts had been created by Shafi to defame him.
In September 2020, the FIA filed a First Information Report (FIR), a document prepared by police agencies when they receive information about potential criminal offenses, and started proceedings against nine people who had either tweeted in support of Shafi or alleged Zafar had harassed them or others, in relation to offenses under section 20 (1) of Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA). The FIR stated that the suspects were summoned multiple times by the FIA cyber crime wing to present their defense, and after they failed to do so, criminal proceedings were initiated against them. These individuals included witnesses for Shafi in the defamation case.
Shafi’s lawyers asked the court to halt the recording of evidence from her side in Zafar’s defamation lawsuit, as they claimed witnesses for her defense were being intimidated by the criminal investigation. But the petition was dismissed on Nov. 2, 2020, and Shafi’s lawyers began to present their witnesses. The next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020, in which Shafi’s witnesses will record their statements in her defense. We will update this story in the event of major developments.
Snopes spoke to individuals mentioned in the FIR, including one who wished to remain anonymous because she did not want to risk another defamation charge, the anonymous person’s lawyer, and Shafi’s legal team in order to understand the impact of the recent summoning by the FIA in the ongoing defamation case filed by Zafar. What emerged are claims of intimidation of witnesses and what many activists say is the use of a troubling law to silence anyone who comes forward claiming harassment. We dive into these below.
Weaponizing the Country’s Cyber Laws
Why were some of the people who tweeted against Zafar pulled into this saga? It boils down to Pakistan’s cybercrime laws, specifically PECA. A controversial law, it aimed to counter “terrorist content” and rampant online harassment, but in practice drew criticism for sections that criminalized speech and gave authorities potentially unchecked powers of prosecution. Section 20, “Offences against dignity of a natural person,” allows for a three-year jail term and a fine of up to 1 million rupees:
“Whoever intentionally and publicly exhibits or displays or 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, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine […]”
One individual, who was included in the First Information Report by the FIA in September 2020 for failing to show up when summoned, described to us how over the summer of 2019, she began receiving a number of notices from the agency telling her to arrive at different designated dates and times. Often the FIA’s notices arrived after the appointment date had passed, or gave them only a few hours before to prepare, according to the witness. The individual’s father said he began receiving threatening calls from the agency saying, “What is your daughter doing? Why haven’t you taught her better? You should teach better, bring her to us, we will teach her.”
Furthermore, the individual’s lawyer told Snopes that the FIA’s claims were false and misleading. The lawyer sent a reply on behalf of his client to the agency’s summons that was never acknowledged. “Like a typical policing organization, the culture of FIA is authoritarian” he told us. “They are trained to think that investigation is a coercive means of resolving ‘crimes’ by use of power or symbols of power.”
Tired of the threats, the individual wrote a letter to the Pakistan Senate’s Committee on Human Rights in September 2019, telling them about the intimidation. The notices stopped soon after, she said. In the same month, digital rights advocate Farieha Aziz presented statements from the nine accused by Zafar to the Senate committee, describing how they were being harassed. The testimonies detailed how the FIA’s summons offered no details of the allegations or charges against the accused, how they were being sent to addresses the accused did not reside at, were undated, and more.
These events would impact the ongoing civil defamation case because a number of the accused being investigated by the FIA were also witnesses for Shafi’s defense. In October 2020, soon after they received notices of the criminal investigation against them, and more than a year after their reported harassment and intimidation began, one witness for Shafi who described a past uncomfortable situation with Zafar posted an apology to him on Twitter, retracting her account of his alleged harassment.
Jillani, Shafi’s lawyer, described the FIA’s criminal case against the nine people as prejudicial to the civil defamation case against Shafi: “[Witnesses] are not being given time to seek remedies in the criminal case […] the sole purpose of the FIR was to coerce them into retraction or silence.” And in at least one witness’ case, the retraction did take place.
Zafar’s legal team did not respond to our requests for comment, but in an interview with Time magazine, one of his lawyers denied that the cyber crime complaint was an attempt to intimidate witnesses. The accusers had their opportunity to give statements to investigators and substantiate their claims, she said. We will update this story with more information in the event that we hear from Zafar’s team.
Others, however, have been more vocal. Leena Ghani, one of the accused in the FIA’s criminal investigation and a witness for Shafi, posted a Twitter thread (Note: this thread contains graphic language of sexual violence) detailing her online harassment since she went public against Zafar. She filed a complaint with the FIA in April 2020 about the harassment and threats against her. She told Snopes that the FIA still has not followed up on her complaint, and she continues to receive online threats.
Who Lost and Who Won?
Even as social media is abuzz with claims that Zafar is completely innocent, no one has won any of these cases at the moment. The sexual harassment complaint was dismissed on the technicality that workplace harassment laws did not cover the two musicians. “The [sexual harassment] case hasn’t been addressed on its merits,” Nighat Dad, another one of Shafi’s lawyers, told us. “The defamation and harassment cases are linked,” Dad said. “If they don’t listen to our sexual harassment case, then it [could be] designated as defamation.”
Other rumors bolstered by Zafar, including that Shafi was trying to use this case to gain international recognition to help her get Canadian nationality, were denied by Shafi’s legal team. “Meesha has been a resident of Canada since 2016,” Jillani told us. “Which was two years before she made the allegations.”
The anonymous individual facing a criminal defamation investigation also denied Zafar’s claim that his accusers and detractors were closely connected. “I do not even know who the other accused are,” she told us. “I have no connections with them, I have never seen them.”
Furthermore, activists say the FIA is perceived as not taking most complaints seriously, particularly those of women. A discussion with the deputy director of the agency in 2017 revealed that since PECA was enacted, the agency had received 12,399 complaints, of which only 1,626 became full-fledged inquiries. Digital rights activists, including Dad, who also runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation, argued that PECA was being applied selectively. “FIA procedures are arbitrary,” she told us. “People hardly know what is written in the books […] The law is very new to Pakistani jurisprudence, and the media doesn’t have all the information around [cybercrime laws].” We reached out to the FIA but did not receive a response. We will update this story if we receive more information.
Zafar is still widely popular. In August 2020, he received the Pride of Performance, a civilian award from the government, prompting an outcry from feminist activists around the country.
His accusers now describe being “terrified” since coming forward.
“The state is against me, the men are against me, the media is against me. There is no support. I would be a fool to speak out again,” one of them told Time magazine, speaking anonymously.
Meanwhile, for the anonymous individual who added to the testimonies against Zafar on Twitter, speaking out has had its consequences: “The worst part of it all is that we have NO public opinion on our side. Everyone is like […] they are lying, this is good that it’s happening to them. They need to be taught a lesson.
“What is our crime? That we spoke out and retweeted Meesha? Sharing our experience is a crime?”