A Digital Reboot for Urdu Journalist Hounded Over Charlie Hebdo Cartoon

The legal cases continue, but Shirin Dalvi says journalists have to keep writing.

Mumbai: A year and a half after she was charged and arrested for “outraging religious feelings with malicious intent”, which led to her going underground for a while, well known Urdu journalist Shirin Dalvi is gearing up to launch a digital publication. In the next month or so, Urdu News Express will go online, staffed by a handful of journalists and headed by Dalvi, who has barely recovered from the travails caused by the rash of FIRs and cases filed against her.

“Four FIRs and 28 police complaints – all of them by cronies and friends of a small group – were filed. The Urdu Patrakar Sangh too filed a complaint – they are supposed to stand up for their colleagues, but thanks to them, several journalists lost their jobs,” Dalvi told The Wire said in an interview.

The intensity of the pressure applied by a group of writers and media persons forced the police to take note of the complaints and scared the management of the newspaper, Avadhnama into shutting down the Mumbai edition barely a year after it launched.

The paper was targeted in January 2015 after it republished the cover of a 2006 issue of Charlie Hebdo, which depicted a caricature of Prophet Mohammed, to illustrate a story. “It was an innocuous story about the Pope who had said that those who insult religion would have to bear the consequences; I told my sub-editor to put in some image with it and he chose this old cover. Its my mistake – I should have checked it, but late at night, an editor cannot check each and every story.”

The next day, the newspaper received many calls complaining about the image, but she insists that there was no anger in the community at large. “These were people out to get me and also the paper which had become successful in a very short time. I would say that just one or two men took the lead, helped by a handful of journalists in the paper.” According to her, some of her colleagues had not come to terms with a woman becoming a newspaper editor, the very first one to do so in the 200 year history of Urdu media; in short, it was pettiness and jealousy rather than community wrath that was driving this so-called controversy.

A quick decision was taken by the management – which had only recently set up the Mumbai edition of the UP based paper – to apologise the next day and Dalvi said the same thing to whichever journalist called her for an interview. But that did not stop the complaints that were being filed in different parts of the state. The complainers wanted nothing short of the paper being shut down and her thrown into jail. The second did not happen, but the management succumbed; all the journalists were let go and the edition was closed.

Dalvi went into hiding, initially covering her face, especially during court hearings, her children stopped going to college and, without any regular income, the money began running out. And while she got legal support from her company and other well-wishers, it still meant making the rounds of the courts.

What really rankled her was that she couldn’t write anywhere—no paper would publish her, except for the Hindustan Urdu Daily. “Even prominent newspapers indulged in slander, publishing baseless stories and calling me all kinds of names; one said, there was a statewide police alert for me, which was completely false. But you can imagine the impact on readers.”

The dust has settled, but the legal troubles haven’t yet gone. But Dalvi is now getting ready to bounce back. “I have been a journalist for 27 years; I have written hundreds of articles. It’s time to move to the next step.” She had noticed that the readership of Urdu newspapers was falling – “the language is no longer spoken by the young, they are all sent to English medium schools. Plus, they will not even touch newspapers, which are old fashioned and don’t connect with the newer reader’s aspirations.” Digital was the way to go and with the backing of the Milaap group and some crowdsourcing, she will soon launch the first stand alone Urdu online publication, which can be accessed on the computer and, more importantly, on the mobile.

“I want to reach out to the young and tell them not to get bogged down in negativity and old-fashioned ideas. Education, health, society, these are the issues that matter and I want to write more about them. Journalists have to keep writing; they don’t ever retire.”

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