In India, the War on Journalists Is All-Encompassing

As the government mistreats the press, ordinary people are now joining in blaming reporters for violence and mayhem

In India, the War on Journalists Is All-Encompassing
Children of journalists march for freedom rights / Tanmoy Bhaduri / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

An unsettling, eerie silence engulfed the streets of Khajuri Khas two days after the riots. The neighborhood is a Muslim ghetto and was one of the worst hit in the anti-Muslim violence that erupted in Delhi in late February 2020. Fifty-three people were killed, a majority of them Muslims.

I walked through lanes covered in ashes. The air was thick with the toxic smell of burned refrigerators and charred vehicles. Broken pieces of furniture lined the streets. I stepped over a lone, bloodstained slipper and a half-burned notebook. I remember noting that about 30 houses in Khajuri Khas were burned down. Shops belonging to Muslims had been specifically targeted. It was day three of the violence, and parts of the city were still burning.

As a journalist, my presence set off ripples of resentment. “The media instigated the riots. Are your prime-time news anchors happy now?” asked a 50-year-old man who sat outside a three-story house that was gutted. Two teenage girls — his daughters — were wailing inconsolably. They had escaped the previous night when the rioters attacked this lane. Now they returned to see their home destroyed. “My daughter was going to get married next month. Now we’re left with nothing. Are your bosses happy now?” he asked.

I could feel a tight knot in my stomach. He was not the first riot victim I met that day who believed the media had played an active role in instigating the hate and bigotry that culminated in these riots.

While the exact timeline remains unclear, the roots of the riots lie in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The 2019 act, which amends the original Citizenship Act dating to 1955, excludes Muslims from the subcontinent from seeking fast-track citizenship. For months Muslim women, student activists and liberal groups protested against the law for being anti-Muslim. In the run-up to the riots, mainstream media networks ran a blitzkrieg of evening TV debates labeling protesters as “anti-nationals,” “paid foreign agents” and even terrorists.

I remember many conversations with colleagues who were covering these protests. We could see this coming. “It is only a matter of time before the propaganda and polarization channeled by big media networks translates into violence,” a senior journalist once told me. I was reporting at the protest sites for over two months and witnessed rising apprehension among protesters. When a leader from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) issued an ultimatum to the police that the police clear out the protesters or the party and its followers would, it was only a matter of hours until violent mobs descended on protest sites. The media is complicit in the bloodbath that followed, several protesters later told me.

And this hostility toward us continues. In April, several journalists were attacked by a mob at a Hindu right-wing rally in New Delhi. Five of them had to be escorted by police for their protection; of these, four were Muslim. At the rally, Hindu supremacists who had earlier been accused of similar hate speech delivered anti-Muslim verbal attacks. Arbab Ali, a reporter with Article 15 — an independent news website — tweeted that he was attacked by the mob because of his Muslim identity: “They asked us our names. They called us Jihadi,” he wrote.

When I decided at the age of 12 to be a journalist, I believed that it was the way I could serve my country and its people. To this day, I continue to struggle with my stubborn idealism. It’s an internal conflict where my innate optimism is challenged by the harsh realities of being a journalist in India. I have tried seeking comfort in the little impacts that my own stories could achieve. I had to continue doing my part. But with the growing self-censorship by mainstream media networks, even ordinary acts of reporting the truth start to feel like a battle. After more than seven years as a reporter in India, where the press is being muzzled, one thing is clear: In the India of right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, journalists either join the cacophony of government propaganda or are silenced.

Curtailing of press freedom is part of Modi’s larger campaign to control India by fueling anti-Muslim sentiments. In August 2019, Modi revoked the special status of Kashmir and brought it under the direct control of his government. Kashmir was also placed under the longest internet shutdown ever recorded in a democracy, from August 2019 to March 2020, right after the abrogation of its special status. The region continues to face internet interruptions regularly. India is the global leader in internet shutdowns, imposed as a repressive method to quell dissent, according to the latest report by digital freedom monitoring agency Access Now.

Journalists in Kashmir, India’s only majority-Muslim state, are disproportionately affected by frequent summons to local police stations and background profiling, among other forms of censorship. According to a story published in The Wire, in the past two years at least 40 Kashmiri journalists have been called for “background checks,” summoned to explain their work and social media conduct. Several Kashmiri journalists are also barred from traveling abroad as per the report. At least six Kashmiri journalists have been formally charged with terrorism.

Journalists who refused to be silenced found themselves under attack. Fahad Shah, an independent journalist and editor from Kashmir, was charged under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA), an anti-terrorism law that can put him in jail for two years without trial for reporting on the government’s crackdown on the Muslim community in Kashmir. Shah is the editor-in-chief of The Kashmir Walla (TKW), a website known to be the last voice of independent local journalism in Kashmir. He has also freelanced for the international press including The Guardian, Time, Foreign Policy and The Nation. Before being charged under PSA, Shah faced a campaign of harassment for his reporting.

After his release, he has been arrested by local police and granted bail by courts three times since February. “Every time he got bail from courts, the police would arrest him again in a different case. They have really been after him,” a close friend and colleague of Shah told me.

In this year’s run-ins with the law, Shah was first arrested on Feb. 4, reportedly after filing a story about a gunfight that took place in May 2020 in which a 17-year-old was killed. In the report, he quoted the police as well as the teen’s family, who said that he was not a militant. He was charged with sedition and “glorifying anti-national content” and spent more than 20 days in jail before being released on bail. “He had become very weak after the first time. And now, there’s no hope for a bail,” his friend told me.

A month before Shah’s first arrest this year, another journalist from TKW, Sajad Gul, was detained under PSA for reporting on anti-government protests in the Kashmir Valley. Shah wrote editorials against Gul’s arrests on his website, and that irked the establishment, his colleagues told me.

Shah’s first arrest was a marked escalation in the Indian government’s assault on press freedom in Kashmir. Despite civil society outrage and condemnation from national and international watchdogs like the Editors of Guild of India, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the state went ahead with its arrest.

“No one thought that the government would go this far. Fahad didn’t believe things could get this bad,” his friend said.

But things did go from bad to worse. Shah was no stranger to state monitoring and press censorship. He, like other Kashmiri journalists, learned to navigate his job through the muddy waters of everyday surveillance and indirect intimidation from government agencies in Kashmir. But his arrest has led to fear among journalists in the valley who have retreated into silence. I spoke to several Kashmiri journalists who are now refraining from “making too much noise” and trying to avoid being noticed for their work. Many of them have moved to New Delhi and other cities. My Kashmiri counterparts know all too well the price they have to pay to be a journalist in the conflict region.

Aakash Hassan was driving back from a reporting assignment in Srinagar, Kashmir, when he got a call from a familiar number, one he knew to be that of a local law enforcement agency. He wasn’t surprised, as it was only a few days before that he had published a story about the Indian government’s crackdown on information in Kashmir. “I have been summoned and questioned at least a dozen times by local police in the last two years,” Hassan told me.

This is what we call the Kashmir pattern. Journalists are called for “background checks” or “routine verifications” often after they publish a story that is critical of the government. The call is not made in direct reference to the story, but covert hints do the job.

“They ask all sorts of questions: Who am I writing for these days, questions about my family, my bank account details, my family’s bank account details, what are my siblings doing and how much property does my family own,” Hassan said. “Sometimes they warn in vague terms to be careful about what I write.”

In another recent assault on journalistic freedoms in Kashmir, the local administration issued an order requiring all journalists to “register” with a government department to be able to report freely out in the field or online. For Hassan, it was the shutdown of the Kashmir Press Club that dealt a big blow. To the average person, it looks like a rundown government building and smells of old rotten paper, but for journalists in Kashmir, it was the last safe space in Srinagar where they could meet and discuss their stories. When I was there in 2018, it was newly established but had already become a refuge for local independent journalists like Hassan. “More than anything else, it was a solidarity group where I knew that someone would speak up if something bad were to happen to me,” Hassan told me. “Despite the harsh circumstances under which journalists in Kashmir operate … it was the only place where we could exchange reporting notes, talk about the threats we face and just be there for each other.”

Last year, in the early hours of Sept. 9, the residences of four Kashmiri journalists were raided by local police investigating a case charged under the anti-terror law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). “The manner in which these raids were conducted, it looked as if we were terrorists and not journalists,” Hassan said.

As things escalate in Kashmir with Shah’s most recent arrest, the pattern seen in Kashmir is being replicated in the rest of India. Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist from the southern state of Kerala, has been languishing in jail over two years now. He was on his way to report on a story about a heinous rape in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh when he was arrested by local police and later charged under an anti-terrorism law on charges of sedition. Kappan has reported on the CAA protests and the rise of Hindu nationalism, much like me and many of my colleagues. He also used to write about the illegal incarceration of activists under the UAPA, the same law that’s being used against him. Raihanath, Kappan’s wife, believes he was arrested so as to intimidate all journalists from pursuing any story against the government. “The government wants to instill fear among journalists and civil society groups. Siddique was targeted because he is a journalist and a Muslim one at that,” she told me.

In this war on journalism, we are being attacked not only through intimidation tactics but also by a systematic assault from government sympathizers and their social media army. Online threats and social media harassment is a package deal for female journalists in India. Over the years, I’ve conditioned myself to ignore them, often not even reading the bile that’s thrown at me for simply doing my job. But earlier this year, the online trolling took an uglier turn.

This past New Year’s, I woke up to a series of messages from friends and colleagues in India informing me that my name and picture had appeared in an “online auction” on a fake website hosted by American tech platform GitHub. It left me disgusted and angry. These men offered me and nearly 100 other Muslim female journalists and activists up “for sale” and described us in derogatory terms. This was the second such fake “online auction” of outspoken Muslim women held by individuals who represent the support base of the ruling party. The first time, the police made no arrests, emboldening the perpetrators to do it again.

In a patriarchal country like India, targeting women is seen as the apt way to humiliate a community. As a journalist, I don’t let my religious identity come in the way of my reporting. But in India, where the Hindu right dominates, it’s an identity that I am constantly reminded of and targeted for. Muslim women like me were targeted because we either had covered stories that are critical of the government or have been vocal critics of government policies, especially the citizenship law. The motive was to shame us into silence. Since this was the second such “auction,” law enforcement agencies were driven into action not so much by the government but by the outrage that followed. Five men, ages 18 to 25, have been arrested so far.

Other colleagues face worse. When Rana Ayyub is not being quizzed by Indian police and tax authorities, she is slapped with communal slurs and threats of death and rape by Modi’s supporters, many of whom the prime minister follows on Twitter. In her columns for The Washington Post, Time magazine and other international publications, Ayyub takes on Modi and his government, calling out the dangers of Hindu nationalism, Islamophobia and the attack on press freedom. Ayyub is perhaps one of the most internationally recognized journalists from India, which means she is also one of the most viciously abused. Ayyub has had at least three criminal lawsuits filed against her in addition to an investigation into her finances, launched by Indian tax authorities. She says the threats and intimidation — both by the government and its “troll army” — have intensified ever since she began writing for international media. Her being a Muslim journalist often means that the online harassment escalates to pure vitriol.

It has taken a toll on her mental health, and she hit rock bottom. “It is brazen and the intimidation gets to be a lot, it gets really overwhelming. Recently, I was borderline suicidal when I called up my psychiatrist and lawyers. But then I reminded myself, this is exactly what they’re trying to do to you,” Ayyub said. Despite the sustained campaign against her, Ayyub considers herself one of the “luckier” ones.

“One thing that separates me from Siddique Kappan is privilege. I do have the privilege to have a psychiatrist. I do have the privilege to have a great lawyer,” Ayyub acknowledged.

Following the latest case filed against Ayyub alleging misappropriation of funds collected during the pandemic for her charity work, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs issued a statement urging the government to “halt all retaliation attacks” against her, calling the case “judicial harassment” and drawing a sharp response from India. Ayyub has denied all allegations, calling it a smear campaign. The case, which is now being investigated by India’s top financial regulatory agency, was filed by the founder of a Hindu nationalist NGO.

For independent journalist Neha Dikshit, the online threats turned real. On Jan. 27, 2021, Dikshit tweeted that there had been an attempt to break into her house two days earlier. She revealed that she had been stalked since September 2020 and that the stalker threatened her with “rape, acid attack and death.” Prior to this incident, Dikshit was often targeted by Modi supporters on social media with hateful and misogynist comments.

An investigative reporter, she was awarded the 2019 International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists for her work exposing extrajudicial killings by Indian police. But back in India, there have been attempts to intimidate her through police complaints. In 2016, two criminal defamation cases had been filed against Dikshit by Hindu right-wing organizations affiliated with the ruling party for reporting that Modi’s ideological Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), a Hindu right-wing voluntary paramilitary organization, was involved in the trafficking of tribal girls for the purpose of indoctrination in India’s northeast. There is another more serious criminal case of inciting communal hatred against her for her journalistic work. “For the past five years, I have had to travel to another state and appear in court hearings. There are legal expenses and travel costs that one has to bear in addition to the mental toll it takes,” Dikshit told me in a phone interview.

Dikshit said she has also made previous governments unhappy with her work and had received legal notices, but Modi’s government has normalized this trend of entangling journalists in court cases that take years to resolve. The objective is to ensure journalists exercise self-censorship to avoid these legal hassles.

The police don’t act on the complaints filed by journalists. When someone broke into Dikshit’s home, after innumerable phone threats by the perpetrator letting her know he was closely watching her every move, she reported the incident to the police. But there has been no update in the case since. In the past 25 years, there have been only two convictions in cases of attacks on journalists, Dikshit said.

Modi’s government has carefully crafted a new strategy to intimidate “unfriendly” media with bogus criminal or terror charges, according to Siddharth Vardrajan, editor of The Wire, an award-winning independent media outlet that has fiercely criticized the establishment. There are five police cases filed against The Wire, Vardrajan and three of his reporters. “I don’t recall in the last 20 years that I’ve been a journalist to see criminal cases of this kind be filed against reporters. Journalists were harassed in the past too, but what’s happening now is that if the state doesn’t like a particular story, then it’s quite happy to unleash the police against the reporter,” Vardrajan said.

That journalists like Dikshit and Ayyub are on the radar of Hindu extremists is no secret, and the complaints filed by them should be given due urgency. Threats of this kind have been known to turn deadly. On Sept. 5, 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a left-leaning journalist who was highly critical of Hindu nationalism, received a wave of death threats and then was shot dead by assassins “trained” by the Hindu extremist organization Sanatan Sanstha. Four years on, 18 people have been arrested in connection with her murder, but there have been no convictions.

I have witnessed firsthand how attacks on journalists have escalated rapidly over the past three years. As I remember Lankesh, I am forced to confront the possibility that many of my colleagues risk their lives for the work they do. We have been forced to accept the threats, hate, harassment, government censorship and intimidation as a part of being a journalist in India. We shouldn’t have to.

The aftermath of the Delhi riots left me with a feeling of resentment toward the normalization of anti-Muslim rhetoric and government propaganda, which was evident during the coverage of the protests and the riots. The pandemic and the Indian media’s reportage only made it worse. Television news networks have been highly effective in propagating Modi’s message to the masses. Most big networks, especially Hindi news channels with millions of viewers, have a prime-time news anchor who unabashedly advances anti-Muslim racism. In the past few years, a large section of television news networks played a big role in propagating hate and bigotry in an already polarized India.

At the start of the pandemic in early spring 2020, many big media houses were quick to blame a Muslim congregation for the initial spread of COVID-19. The government also released COVID-related data specifically about the congregation, isolating that particular community. The media played into the government’s narrative and amplified it. Headlines flashing “Corona Jihad” became a new catchphrase. Unverified videos of men wearing skullcaps and spitting in public places were used on air, instigating hate against minorities and sparking attacks on Muslim street vendors in different parts of the country.

That’s when I decided to take a break from mainstream media in India. I needed to step away; I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve put thousands of miles between me and that rhetoric, but it doesn’t help in reducing the anger and helplessness I continue to feel every time another journalist in India is arrested or when another mainstream media network fuels hate. My internal conflict rages on. On one hand, I feel an enveloping cynicism that my side is losing the war on journalism. On the other are my idealism and a call that I need to work harder than ever. While it may be one of the most challenging times to be a journalist in India, it is also the most urgent. And when I look at the courage and resilience of my colleagues back home, I am reminded why I chose this profession. We have to do our part.

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