Politics

Activists, Artists Condemn Threats Against Reporter Behind Tamil Nadu Sand Mafia Exposé

The petitioners have demanded action against the people threatening Sandhya Ravishankar, saying their actions violate the freedom of press.

Sandhya Ravishankar. Courtesy: Facebook/Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar. Courtesy: Facebook/Sandhya Ravishankar

Over a thousand people, including musician T.M. Krishna, social activist Aruna Roy, Kavita Krishnan, Annie Raja, noted activist Harsh Mander, Professor Lakshmanan, Evidence Kathir, Dr. Anand Teltumbde, environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman and independent journalist Cynthia Stephen have signed a petition condemning the threats that Chennai-based journalist Sandhya Ravishankar has been receiving since writing a four-part series exposing the corruption and environmental exploitation plaguing Tamil Nadu’s sand mining industry, published on The Wire.

Networks like the Women in Media (NWMI) have also come forward in support for Ravishankar.

Ravishankar has become a target for online abuse and harassment since detailing the functioning of the sand mafia in the state, which has led to decades of environmental exploitation and corruption.

The authors and signatories of the letter believe that the threats Ravishankar is receiving violate the constitutional right to freedom of press since her work is in the nation’s interest and it is the “collective duty of citizens and authorities to uphold that right.”

The document states, “Action must be taken against those threatening her, so that such intimidation is discouraged. It is a known fact that journalists face grave dangers and undertake enormous risks in reporting inconvenient facts about powerful lobbies.”

Magsaysay award winner and musician T.M. Krishna said of Ravishankar’s work, “She has given us an opportunity to declare freedom from the various goons who control our social, economic and political existence. It is the responsibility of every one of us to ensure that Sandhya is safe and continues her work. We are living in times when dissent has been turned into an anti-national word by the political powers at the helm. And to further establish that, they bully and frighten people who stand up to them courageously. Dissent is the core energy that keeps the spirit of democracy alive and it is beholden on everyone of us to protect, preserve and to actively express our dissent to every kind of violence that is perpetrated in society. ”

In addition to pointing out the constitutional importance of taking strict action against those behind the threats, the letter also highlights the gendered nature of the abuse Ravishankar is facing, stating, “The threats to Sandhya indicate attempts to silence her and the trolls have been hurling gender-based slurs. Such threats to women in the field of journalism need to be countered strongly by authorities as well as civil society.”

Social activist Aruna Roy said, “People often think of corruption as financial, or dealing with money and bribes alone. Sand is an important natural resource and therefore illegal sand mining is often not perceived as such by people. Chennai based Sandhya has brought this to light and shown through her work how this natural resource has been exploited by the powers. Sandhya through her extensive series of articles has raised some of these vital questions. Threats to her are an attempt to quell all awareness and discussion on the very subject of sand mining mafia, and is not merely an isolated attack on an individual.” Adding, “Moreover, the nature of the threats indicate how social media is falling prey to the hands of anti-social elements, who use this to target women freely.”

Noted Chennai-based environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman spoke on the issue, saying“If poets, artists, thinkers and independent-minded journalists are silenced, a country loses its conscience. At a time when kleptocracy is in the spotlight in the state, the brazen threats by the beach sand mafia assume increased significance. The police should act in a manner than inspires public confidence.”

Stephen echoed similar sentiments in her statement: “It is a matter of grave concern that a reporter who has done an investigative report on illegal sand mining in the state of TN is being threatened. That she is a woman is also very significant. When public interest is being upheld by her work, and the people of Tamil Nadu and the administration of the state are stakeholders, these threats to her are worthy of the highest condemnation. We call upon the government to ensure her tormentors are arrested immediately and brought to justice. Furthermore we call for full clarification on the violations uncovered by Sandhya Ravishankar and immediate action against the perpetrators of the illegal mining. The ill-gotten wealth to must be brought back to India and used for the benefit of the people of the region who are the true owners.”

The full petition is as follows:

Statement of support for Sandhya Ravishankar, Chennai-based journalist facing threats for reporting on sand-mining mafia

March 17, 2017

We, the undersigned, are concerned about the reports of threats and intimidation to Sandhya Ravishankar. We strongly condemn the same and express our support to her, as well as to other journalists and media-persons who undertake such courageous, investigative work of uncovering truths about established powers.

Sandhya Ravishankar has published a series of articles on the sand mining mafia in Tamil Nadu as part of her investigative work undertaken over four years. Ever since her article was published, she has been under threat and intimidation. As reported in The Wire, Sandhya has said, “I have been harassed online with trolls on social media using foul language against me, calling me a “corrupt” journalist, a “fake” journalist etc. My mobile number was published on Twitter and Facebook by the anonymous trolls supporting Mr S. Vaikundarajan, the largest beach sand miner in the country – my mobile number was published with a note in Tamil saying that I was “anti-Jallikattu” and asking people “not to call her”. Subsequently I received a flood of abusive and threatening calls – unknown people threatening to put chilli powder inside my private parts, threatening to beat me up and abusing me in the filthiest manner possible.” She has lodged complaints with the Press Council of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, The Editor’s Guild, the Chennai City police and the Cyber Crime Cell.

As citizens of India, we stand in full support and solidarity with journalists like Sandhya. We state that she is not alone, and that we stand by her. We demand that her complaint be taken seriously by the authorities, and that they take cognizance of the sensitivity of her work. Action must be taken against those threatening her, so that such intimidation is discouraged. It is a known fact that journalists face grave dangers and undertake enormous risks in reporting inconvenient facts about powerful lobbies. Moreover, freedom of press is a Constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right (Art. 19) and it is the collective duty of citizens and authorities to uphold the right. The threats to her are a violation of that very right.

Sandhya’s investigation into the issue of sand mining is, truly, in the interest of the nation. Her reports have highlighted long term and short term impacts on Tamil Nadu’s environment and its economy. Significantly, she has pointed out in her investigation how the law of the land is being subverted with impunity by a private conglomerate, even as law-abiding officials have only attempted to implement laws.

The threats to Sandhya indicate attempts to silence her and the trolls have been hurling gender-based slurs. Such threats to women in the field of journalism need to be countered strongly by authorities as well as civil society. This is a question of safeguarding fundamental democratic rights. We therefore urge that speedy and exemplary action be taken so that a strong message is sent to those behind these threats and intimidatory tactics.

Social activist Harsh Mander said of the issue, “Sandhya’s case is emblematic of the climate of permissive intolerance that we see around us today. That she is trolled, with sexually violent threats, and that too for exposing corrupt nexus of the sand mafia, is a sad commentary on our times. We need to all stand in solidarity with Sandhya and all the Sandhyas around us.”

And Mumbai-based independent journalist Geeta Seshu asserted, “All journalists are standing with Sandhya Ravishankar and her work. “