Journalists around the world face online harassment for their critical reporting. In particular, female journalists receive a disproportionate number of online attacks and threats compared to their male colleagues. The vicious and widespread nature of these attacks reflects latent misogyny in society and not only endangers the gains that female journalists have made in the profession but also threatens to silence female journalists’ voices.
To mark the International Women’s Day, IPI’s media partners in the South Asia Cross-border journalism project in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal have documented the online harassment of women journalists in their countries. These stories are published in all the five news publications – The Daily Star, The Week, Dawn, Republica and Nagarik – encapsulating the nature of attacks and reflect the larger picture of challenges faced by women journalists in the region and across the globe.
Neha Dixit, an independent, award-winning journalist, was alone when she heard someone try to enter her first-floor home in Delhi on January 25, 2021. She assumed that it was her filmmaker husband at the door, but still called out ‘Kaun hai?’ (Who is it?) a few times before opening the door. A whiff of air confirmed that someone had been there, even though she did not see anyone or hear any footsteps.
Dixit says she had been receiving threatening phone calls since September 2020. The first of these calls, which came when she was buying vegetables, made it clear that the threat was related to her work. “Badi journalist bani phirti ho” (So you think you are a big journalist), said the anonymous caller in Hindi. Subsequent callers, she says, pointedly mentioned where she was at that very moment. Once as she stepped out of a friend’s home, the caller said, “Aa gayi dost ke yahan party karke. Ab tera rape karke sadak pe chod denge” (You are out of a party with friends; you will be raped and left on the road). No matter how many phone numbers she blocked, the calls routed through the Internet did not stop, she says.
This is not the first time that Dixit, a journalist for 14 years, has said that she is being targeted. In 2016, two cases were filed against her after she wrote a story alleging that a social service organisation had “trafficked” children from Assam and sent them to Gujarat and Punjab. She says she is still fighting these cases in Guwahati, Assam. In 2018, when reporting on fake “encounter” killings in Mewat (Rajasthan), she was chased by local people.
Dixit says her defence mechanism is ‘not to think about it’ as undue thought will leave her unable to work. After the break-in attempt at her home, though, she filed a police report.
While journalists have never been immune to defamation cases, Dixit says, “This political regime is unlike any other. No government has crushed free press so relentlessly. This has given people the impunity to physically attack journalists.” In the 2016 case against her, Dixit has been charged with “inciting communal hatred”. If proved, it will get her five years in prison and a fine.
Journalistic organisations do little to offer notional or real support. Dixit says that one of their greatest failings is that they do not even insist that freelance journalists be given identification cards. This leaves such scribes open to all kinds of mistreatment. Reactions that pour in when independent journalists such as Mandeep Punia, who was arrested from the site of the farmers protest at Singhu (Haryana), are just those: knee-jerk reactions with no thought given to solutions.
According to the independent, not-for-profit Committee to Protect Journalists, between 1992 and 2021 as many as 52 journalists were killed in India. This is just the number of cases in which the motive was confirmed. Getting Away with Murder, a study sponsored by the Thakur Foundation on attacks on journalists in India during 2014-19, reported 198 serious attacks and 48 killings (with 21 having definite links to the journalists’ work).
In March 2017 journalist Poonam Agarwal of Delhi was accused of breach of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), as well as abetment to suicide, after she wrote a report on the sahayak (buddy) system prevalent in the Indian Army. The system, which had been devised as a pairing technique, so that no soldier was alone during war or peace, had degenerated into one where the junior was reduced to performing such menial tasks as polishing the senior’s shoes or laying his undergarments out to dry. Agarwal had stumbled upon the story through a social media post made by one such sahayak and then travelled to Deolali (Nashik, Maharashtra) to interview other sahayaks within the Cantonment residential areas.
When the web portal that employed Agarwal featured the story, it blurred faces of the men, but their voices remained unchanged. One of the sahayaks who had spoken to Agarwal went missing and his dead body was found some days later. This was explained as a suicide that had happened because the soldier had been “misquoted” in the story.
Agarwal, who has been a journalist for 16 years, says that the terrifying aspect of treating journalists with such impunity is that it pushes the envelope on what is acceptable behaviour. “The damage done will be irreparable. Any subsequent government will further the same agenda. Governments have never been very friendly with the media but neither have been this brazen. The dents that this government has made will not be erased soon.” The First Information Report (FIR) against her was quashed only in April 2019, after multiple runs to the Mumbai High Court.
Agarwal, unlike Dixit, had the backing of her publication. Yet she kept away from field reporting and shifted to a friend’s house till she was granted bail.
While there might be no difference in the quantum of threats and violence directed at male and female journalists, a 2017 United Nations report titled, ‘The Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity’ noted: “Women who cover topics such as politics, law, economics, sport, women’s rights, gender and feminism are particularly likely to become targets of online violence.”
Social media enables easy abuse. But when regimes give their tacit approval to these acts, it is easier for such perversions to move to the real world. In the virtual world, though, women journalists face cruder threats, often with graphic descriptions of body parts and detailed illustrations of the crimes that can be committed against them.
There is no telling which kind of threat is more damaging, mentally and emotionally. Just as there is no telling who will use the impunity to threat with greater force.
Agarwal and Dixit were protected by their relatively better access to legal counsel. For journalists from smaller areas and/or conflict zones the challenges are knottier.
Pushpa Rokde has been a journalist since 2004 and is based in Jagdalpur (Bastar, Chhattisgarh). During the Covid-19 pandemic, she took up work as a supervisor in a road construction company to supplement her dwindling income as a journalist. (Her income was calculated as a percentage of the commission on advertisements, and it saw a drastic fall during the Covid lockdown.) Rokde and her husband were tasked with supervising the construction of an eight-kilometre-long road that would join three remote villages to the main road. For this, she has faced the ire of the Maoists in the area. The first salvo was in the form of a poster which was stuck on a tree close to the under-construction road. Among other threats it read, “Be it journalists or anyone, this should be read and understood that the work of the road should be stopped.”
Late in January, she received a handwritten note which accused her of being a police informer. “When the public comes for demonstration and hartals, you call the police at once as per our information,” read the letter.
Rokde says that her journalism has been compromised by the general threat of Maoist violence that all media persons in her area face. The police are of little help. “The police have checked on us once or twice. We are essentially on our own,” she says. “However, what bothers me greatly is what I have been accused of. I only want to know when I have betrayed the people who my journalism is supposed to serve. In fact, I am one of the very few journalists (male or female) in the area who regularly raise people’s issues and take on the government.”
There are many layers of complexity to the issue of journalistic freedom. For women, these layers are far more intricate because of the mere fact of their gender. And thus, the threats, abuse and violence are that much more worrisome.