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Women journalists trolled and targeted: India

Written by Nupur Basu |

On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2022, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) came out with a numbing statistic on India. It ranked India at 150 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, a 17 point fall from its ranking in 2016, just six years back.

The report said : “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in the world’s largest democracy.”

Last year in 2021 the World Press Freedom Index had ranked India at 142 out of 180 countries. At that point it was down 10 points in 10 years. This time it is a whopping 17 points.

The rapid and year on year decline of press freedom in India is not only reflected in these numbers but on Ground Zero. India has become one of the most dangerous countries to report from in the world and that is a major blow to its democracy.

The results of this decline in press freedom are visible in many ways – the vilification of journalists, police cases registered against them, defamation and sedition suits, imprisonment under draconian and bizarre terror laws and even killings. Increasingly journalists speaking truth to power are being intimidated for going against the ruling BJP government’s narrative and its Hindutva nationalist moorings. The ire against journalists  could be on any issue, ranging from corruption in high places, the government’s economic failures, to coverage of gang rapes and mismanagement during the pandemic.

According to Reporters Without Borders there has been a 35% rise in women journalists being sent to prison for their work worldwide. The pressures and mounting challenges to women journalists and editors are becoming ever more acute. Former American President Donald Trump’s favourite phrase for dubbing news critical of him as ‘fake news’…and his infamous description of the media as the ‘enemy of the people’ appears to have found easy acceptance among Indian politicians who have borrowed and used that narrative here in India freely to discredit media professionals who are trying to do truth telling. Indeed, the phrase – fake news – has become the new weapon of those in power to discredit and disown journalists’ stories if they are unflattering to the government.

As one example of this repressive trend: during the first phase of the COVID-pandemic a First Information Report ( FIR ) was filed against Supriya Sharma, Executive Editor of for doing a story from the Prime Minister’s constituency of Varanasi on how COVID relief had not reached a poor family. A case under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act was filed against her because a Dalit woman whom she had interviewed in her story turned around and denied the comments in the interview.

Supriya Sharma is a well known, award – winning journalist who travelled to the ground during COVID times and narrated the problem that she witnessed first-hand. There was no mala fide in her reporting. One can only imagine what pressure the Dalit woman had been under to deny her story. The Allahabad High Court had to step in and stop the police from arresting Sharma . Nearly two years on, the case has yet to be closed.

There were other attempts to intimidate journalists across the country in the first and second phase of the pandemic, when the public health situation was critical at times . It was clear that the government was not happy to see any truth telling on the desperate plight of the poor migrant labour after the all-India lockdown in 2020, and the gut -wrenching oxygen scarcity and large number of deaths in the second phase of the pandemic in 2021. The government even tried to introduce forms of censorship on the COVID coverage. But India’s Supreme Court thankfully ruled against it.

In another recent event, two young women journalists who had gone to Tripura to cover an incident of communal conflict were held by the police for allegedly reporting ‘fake news’ and “spreading hatred” with their reporting. Finally the courts had to intervene to grant them bail and the women journalists were released. Similar cases have been reported in other parts of the country, including the nation’s capital, Delhi, where women journalists were detained by the police while they were out covering riots.

In 2021 journalists covering the story of a poor Dalit girl who was gangraped in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, saw a television woman journalist’s phone messages being monitored and made public as she was trying to get to the root of the story. (During the same coverage a male journalist Siddiq Kappan was arrested on serious terror charges as he was heading to Hathras. Kappan, a journalist from Kerala, has been in prison without bail for the last 18 months. )

We asked Sujata Madhok, General Secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) what she thought of the growing intimidation of women journalists in India .

The situation of women in Indian Media is paradoxical. On the one hand there are far more women in the media than ever before, particularly in the big cities. They can be found in every kind of media, newspapers, periodicals, online news media, YouTube and most visibly on television. They have broken many glass ceilings. Yet their very success makes them targets of attack, particularly on social media.  A few media women have had cases filed against them for stories that are inconvenient to the government. (Many male journalists too are facing such cases and some are behind bars.) They are forced to rush to the courts for protection against arrest and prosecution. Such litigation is expensive and harrowing to deal with” Madhok told us.

Recently when the entire Pegasus scam erupted globally, India was very much at the centre of the media story. Pegasus, an Israeli Spyware, was allegedly purchased by the authorities and installed in the mobile phones of several Indian journalists. These included women journalists such as Rohini Singh who was doing stories on alleged corruption of people in the highest echelons of power. As yet there has been no admission from the government as to who actually authorised this surveillance. The matter is pending in court. The government denies having had any hand in the surveillance. But it is a well-known fact that the Israeli company selling this spyware deals only with governments. Attempts to spy on journalists and find out their sources are all contributing factors to India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index crashing down to 150.

In effect, all red lines have been breached when it comes to the safety and security of women journalists. This is true globally, and India is no exception. Velvet Revolution, a documentary produced by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), which I directed along with five other women directors, showcased the increasing vulnerability of women journalists across the world. In the last decade both state and non-state actors seemed to have become trigger-happy with women journalists, in terms of their persecution and even murder. The red line which was there before had proverbially vanished.

In India it was crossed with the gruesome killing of journalist/activist Gauri Lankesh in India’s Information Technology city, Bangalore, on September 5, 2017. Gauri had just put her edition to bed and was returning to her house from work in the evening when masked men riding motor bikes approached her gate and fired seven bullets into her frail and petite frame. She died on the spot.

The trial of Gauri’s assassins is finally scheduled to begin on 27 May, 2022, a delay of four and a half years . Altogether 18 people are on the charge sheet and 17 have been arrested. They all have alleged links with a radical group that claims to propagate Hindutva. The judge has asked for the accused to be presented in court or join online on video from the jail premises.

Even after Gauri’s brutal assassination, online trolls continued to abuse her. The journalist was no more. But the haters continued to spew hate on a corpse. They also proceeded to publish and spread the names of other women journalists who were next in line for elimination. This is a shocking development: these are effectively public death warrants against women journalists and activists being put out on social media in India in the 21st century; yet the social media platforms putting out those hate-filled messages and the government remained mute.

Women journalists are subject to what the United Nations has called “double attacks”. They are threatened both offline and online. Online abuse has reached dizzying proportions. The social media has been weaponised against women journalists and online misogyny has become endemic. Rape, kidnap threats, death threats have become a daily diet on the Twitter handles of women journalists. Indian women journalists such as Arfa Khanum, Rana Ayub, Neha Dixit, Bhasha Singh, Barkha Dutt, Sagarika Ghosh, Saba Naqvi, and Nidhi Razdan are all regularly subjected to vicious attacks on the social media platforms.

In India this online assault has played out in abhorrent ways with women journalists’ photographs morphed with the bodies of porn artists and their telephone numbers and addresses published. The recent cyber crimes in India of #Sulli Deals and #Bulli Bai apps that had put women journalists, particularly Muslim women journalists, up for auction, was another new low in digital crime in India.

Senior journalist and author Saba Naqvi who was targeted wrote on Twitter on January 2, 2022: “Feeling nauseated to get calls from the media saying my name also on the #BulliDeals.Told its still active and any Muslim woman who speaks out is listed. In solidarity with all women out there and the only silver lining is that so many brave young women annoying hate mongers..communal misogyny is a separate mental condition”. @_sabanaqvi

According to Sujata Madhok, General Secretary of the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) – “In a deeply political and polarized country, media women who speak truth to power are considered fair game for any kind of abuse on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media where anonymity emboldens abusers. The ruling BJP’s IT Cell, for instance, unleashes hundreds of trolls on leading women journalists for their comments on political and social developments. Other groups too launch such attacks. However, online anonymity makes it difficult to identify abusers. Predictably, the threats are sexist and often pornographic in nature.  Several women journalists have complained of threats of rape and murder. Some of the worst hate attacks are against minority Muslim women journalists.’’

Despite the outrage against such attacks, there is very little justice for the complainants. Journalist Rana Ayub, a global opinion writer for The Washington Post, has been viciously targeted by trolls in the last decade for her critique of the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The author of the self-published book ; “Gujarat Files –  anatomy of a cover up” which was based on a sting operation during the Gujarat riots when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, Rana has been continuously trolled and abused by right wing Hindutva groups and even by the right wing media. Recently she was the subject of raids by the Enforcement Directorate on charges of “money laundering” of charity funds raised for COVID victims. She has firmly denied these charges. The United Nations condemned the vilification of Rana and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa expressed her solidarity with her.

However, the official harassment continues. In April 2022 Rana was stopped at Mumbai airport and not allowed to board a flight to Italy where she had been invited to deliver a keynote address at the International Journalism Festival 22. She had to secure a court order to be allowed finally to board the flight after a harrowing bureacucratic procedure.

While delivering the keynote address at IJF 22 at Perugia, titled “When the state attacks: journalism under fire in the world’s biggest democracy”, Rana Ayub recounted the mental agony that she had undergone due to this sustained targeting which she said had triggered panic attacks and severe depression.  “Ï have put my entire family in jeopardy with my journalism” she said, adding, however, that she would continue to report from India on all that was going wrong with India’s democracy. “Ï am proud of the fact that the government is scared of my words . I would not like for me to be admired by any political party in India, I would not like that. Over my persecution no political party has stood up in solidarity with me and I take that as a badge of honour. There is an unpopular truth that we must speak and I am here to speak that.”

The Chair, Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research at the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) described the attacks on Rana by government agencies and right wing trolls as “extremely reprehensible” and said that all world governments and international media should to take note. “We have been studying Rana’s case and analysed the 8.5 million twitter posts directed against Rana- the hostility, the misogyny, the reprehensible attacks and the ways in which they come torrentially ..”

Posetti told the audience: “We demanded ..because we had to ..that Rana could fly and she did and she is here..and she’s here because she has a compelling reason to be here..she has a compelling and important story to tell ..its a story of state-based harassment and vilification and unfortunately its becoming a very familiar story around the world. But in India, the world’s biggest democracy, it is an essential story for us to hear and ensure we are understanding the myriad challenges when it comes to producing journalism as a freelance woman journalist, who is Muslim and who is attempting to hold power to account in the context of what Rana refers to as potential genocide.”[1]

The UN Secretary General said recently that a survey done by the UN had revealed that 72% of women journalists were being intimidated and harassed for just doing their daily job. Digital media in particular has been the vehicle to heap abuse on women journalists for the truth telling they are doing. But the more they abuse, the more the women are coming out with more and more ground breaking and important stories.

Recently, a top scientist in India said that women journalists were the “real heroines ” of the COVID coverage in the country . They went relentlessly into the field in the most difficult times…to hospitals, morgues, burial grounds and burning ghats. and recorded the hopelessness and human suffering unleashed by the pandemic. They did stories on India’s poor public health infrastructure to deal with a health emergency like a pandemic, the subsequent deaths amounting to over 4 million according to the Lancet . The Indian authorities have rubbished this figure and posted COVID death statistics which are ten times lower than this figure.

Truth telling by women journalists ,in the face of repressive tactics unleashed by governments and other undemocratic forces, comes despite the atmosphere of intimidation, arrests, raids, espionage and death threats . This is indeed good news for journalism.

But two questions beg answering:
Are women journalists in India doing a much more dangerous job than they set out to do?
And will those trolling, criminalising, arresting and killing them get away with impunity?

Clearly institutions like India’s Supreme Court, the Commonwealth, the United Nations must urgently draft stringent laws and punishments and do all in their power to end this unbridled impunity and ensure that persecutors are brought to justice. And media rights organisations in India and around the globe must continue to highlight the erosion of press freedom in India in the coming months.

The Gauri Lankesh murder trial for one will be watched keenly when in begins in the fourth week of May.

Nupur Basu is an ndependent journalist, award winning documentary film maker, and educator from India.

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