The perils of being a journalist in Modi’s India

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Journalists and rights groups say there are increasing efforts to silence the media in India from both government and society, with the United Nations warning that the life of one Muslim journalist in particular is at “serious risk”.

The case of Rana Ayyub, who has said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s followers have normalised hatred online, saw UN experts intervene on May 24 and call on India to protect the Mumbai-based independent reporter.

“We are highly concerned that the life of Rana Ayyub is at serious risk following these graphic and disturbing threats,” they wrote in a report, recalling the murder of another Indian journalist, Gauri Lankesh, following death threats in September 2017.

Ayyub, whose book “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up” alleges government complicity in anti-Muslim violence during the 2002 riots – when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, has been targeted by Hindu nationalists.

Since April 21, fake tweets attributed to Ayyub implying she “supported child rapists” and “hated India” were shared across social media platforms.

She has also received threatening messages by phone.

“The evening before [April 21] I was on an Al Jazeera TV news panel debating the Kathua child rape [in Indian-administered Kashmir] … The messages were disgusting – ‘Go to her place, gang-rape her so she can understand how it’s done’,” Ayyub told Al Jazeera.

On April 23, Ayyub was sent a pornographic video with her face super imposed on an actor.

“I started crying. Nothing this sordid had ever happened to me. Screenshots of the video were posted everywhere on social media. My father, my friends were sent these images,” Ayyub said, explaining that online abusers assume that shaming female journalists would silence them.

Rana Ayyub has received threatening messages online and by phone [Courtesy: Rana Ayyub]

She filed a police complaint on April 26, but no one has been prosecuted yet, she said.

“Islamist”, “Jihadi jane” and “ISIS sex slave” were some of the verbal attacks hurled at Ayyub, who said her identity as a Muslim journalist reporting on a Hindu nationalist government also fuelled the rage of “trolls”.

“It certainly affects them that I am a Muslim voice, a voice that speaks for social justice,” she said.

It was not only “trolls” who messaged Ayyub.

After the UN intervened, KC Singh, former Indian ambassador to Iran, tweeted her to say while he supported her fully, “taking it to a UN panel is unwise. Embarrassing India abroad is cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face”.

Ayyub told Al Jazeera: “If the country can’t protect its journalist, somebody else has to hold the government accountable.

“Why should you be embarrassed to ask for journalists to be protected while they are alive, rather than go on a candle-light march for them when they have been murdered?”

As a freelancer, she said the support of a network would have helped “emotionally and logistically”.

‘Chilling threats’

Weeks after the UN threw its support behind Ayyub, another Indian journalist, Barkha Dutt, claimed that she received “chilling threats” from the “establishment” to stop work on a news project until 2019.

In a series of tweets, the TV journalist and Washington Post columnist accused the right-wing BJP government of trying to intimidate her.

“I never thought the day would come when in my own country, I would be told to hire private security & get my house debugged,” she tweeted. “The meeting held by those who wield power have said – Stop her work projects.”

She also said that the ruling BJP should be held responsible if her safety or that of her family is breached.

In late May, Ravish Kumar claimed he had received death threats. Kumar is one of the most well-known faces on Indian TV as a news anchor at NDTV, and has not shied away from criticising the government.

The threats against journalists come as the country’s leadership makes clear its hostility towards the media.

VK Singh, a cabinet minister in the Modi administration, has repeatedly called journalists “presstitutes”.

In May, the government posted a tender scouting for a company that would help it counter a “media blitzkrieg by India’s adversaries”, a move that analysts described Modi’s efforts to control the press.

Al Jazeera contacted the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for further comment. Ministry officials requested a written query, but did not respond by the time of publishing.

Deadly environment

Meanwhile, dozens of murdered journalists in the country, including Lankesh – an outspoken editor who was shot dead last year, are yet to receive justice.

At least 47 journalists have been killed in India over the past 20 years, 11 of whom were murdered since 2014, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 

Several journalists claim there is an attempt to stifle independent media and believe there are penalties for deviating from the government narrative.

I think everyone will agree that preventing killings takes a particular urgency, one that governments should prioritise. The threats against Indian journalist Rana Ayyub constituted crucial early warning which could not be ignored.

Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur

A handful of editors have quit in recent years, having reportedly succumbed to pressure and pulled stories critical of the Hindu nationalist government.

India slipped to 138 in the Reporters With our Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2018, below war-torn Afghanistan.

CPJ’s Aliya Iftikhar said creating an organisation “focused on press freedom and journalist safety in India” and “a legal defence fund for journalists” could help.

But police inaction and administrative apathy stalls progress.

Watchdog CPJ ranks India 13th in its Global Impunity Index, a list highlighting countries where the murders of journalists are least likely to be punished.

Agnes Callamard, one of the four UN special rapporteurs who signed the statement in support of Ayyub, said the group was focused on preventing further deaths.

“I think everyone will agree that preventing killings takes a particular urgency, one that governments should prioritise. The threats against Indian journalist Rana Ayyub constituted crucial early warning which could not be ignored,” Callamard told Al Jazeera.

“Our demand for intervention is grounded in international standards that ask of governments to take all necessary steps to protect against threats, attacks and harm by non-state actors.”

Analysts have noted that journalists reporting from remote areas in India, away from the spotlight of metropolises, are at heightened risk.

At least three investigative journalists who were probing local corruption have been murdered since November.

“Most of the serious hits have been taken by vernacular-language journalists,” said Mrinal Pande, journalist and former chairperson of Prasar Bharti, India’s state broadcaster.

“Even the slightest whiff of danger to English media journalists gets a national hearing. But it’s the journalist in small towns and villages who are facing threats of assault by mining mafias and corrupt officials. That’s where our focus should be.”

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