Nobody’s Protecting India’s Bravest Journalists
I had the resources to survive a campaign of online hate — but other reporters have been far less fortunate.
Two days after I’d written in the New York Times about being the target of an online hate campaign, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned the Indian government that it had a duty to protect me.
This came within days of several journalism and human rights organizations bringing my case to the U.N.’s attention. As a journalist, I’m uncomfortable becoming the story, but in this case, after a week of abuse and death threats that had left me traumatized and at fear for my life, I had no choice in the matter.
But what happened to me was relatively light compared to the fate of many journalists who live at a distance from the circles of power in Delhi and Mumbai. Indian journalists are increasingly at risk from fanatics, criminals, and online mobs — and the government is doing barely anything to protect them.
As a journalist and columnist, I write mostly about criminal investigations, atrocities against India’s minority groups, and social justice. I am the author of a book that put forward damning revelations about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his second in command, Amit Shah.
Hate and threats have been a part of my career in investigative journalism, partly because I am a high-profile Muslim journalist who has persistently called out India’s majoritarian politics. But this round was exceptionally virulent. A photoshopped tweet falsely claimed I had written, “I hate India and Indians.” Another falsified image claimed to show that I had tweeted in support of child rapists. Neither, of course, was anywhere close to the truth. I frantically wrote tweets making clear I was being trolled, but to no avail. An online mob hurled abuse at me, threatening rape and death. I was a terrorist sympathizer, a slut, a jihadi, a promiscuous woman. They called on me — a patriotic Indian who happens to be Muslim — to pack my bags for Pakistan.
And while online vitriol and bullying is not uncommon in India, the trolls then went a step further: My face was edited onto a series of pornographic videos and let loose on the internet. Everywhere I looked, I saw the images; I knew everyone who knew me had seen them too. My life was made a living hell. I began suffering from panic attacks. Even when I went to the police station to file a complaint, I sat there wondering if the cops who were watching the morphed videos were forming an opinion of my character.
But I am alive and, to some degree, protected. My colleagues away from the corridors of power are not.
On June 14, the Kashmiri journalist Shujaat Bukhari, one of the most prolific voices from the valley and the editor of the regional newspaper Rising Kashmir, was shot dead in Srinagar by unknown assailants. I last saw him two weeks ago at a media summit in Lisbon. The moment he saw me, with his usual irony, he commented that the U.N. had not intervened in Kashmir despite four decades of violence and impunity, and how fortunate I was to have gotten the group’s support. On the day Bukhari was killed, a U.N. report citing gross human rights violations in Kashmir was released. His last tweet was a link to coverage of the damning report.
In his death, Shujaat reminded me of the privilege I enjoyed as a journalist who had the backing of U.N. special rapporteurs.
There are many others like Shujaat in my country.
In March, Sandeep Sharma, a freelance journalist for the television channel News World, was run over by a truck in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Sharma had exposed the complicity of police officers in an illegal mining case.
Navin Nischal wrote for the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar in the eastern state of Bihar. He was riding his bike alongside a friend in March when they were hit by an SUV driven by the husband of a former village head he had been investigating.
Last year, also in Bihar, the Hindustan journalist Vikas Kumar suffered serious head injuries after being beaten up by members of a gang that sold illegal adulterated alcohol.
Gauri Lankesh, a personal friend, was a longtime critic of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Gauri was taken to court for a defamation case by members of the ruling party, but that did not make national headlines. Then, in 2017, she was shot dead by unknown assailants outside her home in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. It was only then, in her death, that her work got national attention, with marches of solidarity in the capital.
The journalist Tongam Rina, a dynamo of an editor at the Arunachal Times in eastern India, was shot point-blank in the stomach in 2012 as she was investigating local corruption. She survived, but it took a near-death experience before she got some of the protection that comes with national prominence.
Sometimes it’s the state itself targeting journalists. In September 2017, the independent Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yusuf was arrested by the National Investigation Agency. Kamran, then 23, was accused on flimsy evidence of throwing stones at troops and not released until this March.
As these cases show, beyond the metropolises, the rural Indian journalists doing some of the most critical work are not warned on social media or via phone calls but are instead killed with impunity; they are mowed down by cars or shot dead by assailants who remain at large.
In the Bastar division of Chhattisgarh and in the Gadchiroli division of Nagpur — both violent hotbeds of tribal distress — regional journalists who bring us some of the bravest, most fearless news stories of excesses by the authorities are often under attack from both state and nonstate actors. Most of these journalists don’t have large social media followings.
So, when a policeman slaps a reporter, a female journalist is groped, or a writer is threatened, there are no headlines, reports, or Twitter trends. These are journalists who do not enjoy the power that comes with being in the political corridors of New Delhi but who deliver some of the most damning — and important — news stories about India.
These brutal assaults on journalists who are doing their job — and their duty to the public — is one reason why India ranks 138th in the world in the latest World Press Freedom Index. Even when we’re not physically assaulted, we’re the targets of campaigns like the one against me designed to smear, discredit, and shame us. One of the most admired voices on Indian television, the Hindi TV journalist Ravish Kumar, has been at the receiving end of a similar hate campaign.
Other prominent journalists such as the NDTV host Nidhi Razdan and the Washington Post columnist Barkha Dutt have also recently revealed they have received threatening messages from trolls and from people in power. But journalists who work in big cities and are well-known figures in India — such as Ravish, Barkha, Nidhi, and I — have the privilege of large platforms and followings that offer us some form of protection, as well as the personal support we need to psychologically survive such campaigns.
I have a liberal father, friends, and colleagues, none of whom batted an eyelid when they heard I was featured in a fake porn video. I have access to a therapist I can call at midnight to calm my nerves after an anxiety attack. But female journalists working in rural, patriarchal parts of India face intense shaming in such cases — even from the police they might try to go to for help.
Little help is forthcoming from the government. In four years in power, Modi has yet to hold a single press conference. In one of his rare interviews with the news agency ANI in 2014, Modi did not mince words in referring to journalists he disagreed with as “newstraders” who sold news, wrote hit jobs, and were not real journalists.
The Indian state has much to answer for in its prosecution of journalists in recent years through concerted, malicious campaigns. A union minister in the present government has a history of berating journalists, calling them jihadis, third-rate thugs, and “presstitutes.” Journalists who are critical of the government are not allowed access to government events or interviews. Reporters and editors who are critical of the government have been forced to resign. Most are now independent journalists writing for news websites like Scroll and The Wire, spaces created in response to self-censorship by mainstream publications.
But for all my personal troubles in the last month and reading of horror stories from fellow journalists, I have found some answers too: Mainstream journalists like me need to signal-boost voices that are far removed from the urban centers. Those of us with a public platform in India must use our position of privilege to embolden the voices of the unsung reporters who are a part of our fight to protect free speech in the country we love and cherish.