Indian women journalists face all the usual threats that come with rigorous reporting — from physical attacks to intimidation. But they also face a continuous stream of misogyny and harassment.
I’m on my way to the Arunachal Times office on the evening of July 15, 2012. It’s around 6 pm on a Sunday. There’s a young man standing idly next to the office entrance, but I don’t pay him any attention.
Suddenly, as I reach the entrance and am about to enter, in one smooth motion he pulls out a gun and shoots me. Point blank. In my stomach.
It’s just one bullet.
People around me hear the gunshot, it’s very loud. My office is close to a national highway and people there hear it too. I scream.
My office colleagues come rushing outside, but by now the shooter has escaped. I don’t know more details at this point about him, or about him leaving. What I remember is my colleagues rushing me to the hospital.
The doctors say I’ve sustained injuries to my spinal cord and intestines. I undergo emergency surgery where the doctors cut out the punctured bits of my intestines. I’ve had problems with my stomach ever since. The bullet bruised my spinal cord and I’m lucky I lived, but it has affected my movement, my right leg, in particular. I’m still undergoing treatment. Otherwise I’m fine.
A colleague registers a police complaint on the same evening. The investigation drags on. The police either have no idea what they’re doing or just don’t want to pursue it. A man is arrested after about a year or so.
I’ve never seen or met this arrested man. I’ve been told he’s got a criminal record, but obviously he didn’t do this on his own, he did it on someone else’s orders. The police say they have no idea who that is. I’ve never been summoned except once, when I was abroad and couldn’t go. I did file a case against him, but there have been no developments in the case since. In four years, I don’t know where the case is headed. The man has been released, I’ve been told.
There can be no other reason for the attack other than my work. I’d received threats many times before this attack as well, specifically for the articles I’ve written on corruption, the public distribution system (PDS) and hydropower – all extremely risky and controversial topics in my state. Is there any freedom of speech? Who can report properly in India without being called anti-national and seditious?
— Tongam Rina, Associate Editor at the Arunachal Times
According to Dangerous Pursuit, a report published recently by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 27 Indian journalists have been murdered directly due to their work since 1992. None of the 27 recognised murder cases have seen a conviction.
The CPJ is investigating another 25 Indian murder cases to determine if those journalists were killed for their work as well.
These findings are substantial and worrying, even though many senior journalists like Madhu Trehan, Sevanti Ninan, and Geeta Seshu feel that they are not new. The report argues that this sense of impunity has left journalists vulnerable to threats and attacks, thus having a direct implication for press freedom.
The CPJ highlights three factors that determine the vulnerability of journalists: location of reporting, the language reported in and how well-known the affiliated media organisation is.
However, the report does not pay any attention to the factor of gender, and none of the journalists profiled in it are women. Sevanti Ninan, founder editor of The Hoot, argues that the CPJ report does not profile women since its focus areas hardly have women reporters at the district level to begin with.
On the other hand, Laxmi Murthy, who has been a part of the International Federation of Journalists’ (IFJ) report on press freedom in South Asia (The Road to Resilience: Press Freedom in South Asia 2015-2016), says that in the past two years, they have been running a special chapter on gender within their report. This addition has happened because there’s a recognition that gendered aspects to the experiences of women journalists when they are reporting need to be looked at as well.
Raksha Kumar, freelance journalist and co-author of the CPJ report, says that while there are overlaps between her own experiences as a woman journalist and the report’s findings, she has faced moments while reporting when she has been made acutely conscious of her gender. She remembers, for instance, the time she reported in militarised Bastar, a place full of armed, male security personnel. “I would always be asked how I would know anything – being a woman and never having picked up a gun,” she says.
So what are the experiences of women journalists reporting in dangerous terrain or on contentious issues? Do they face threats other than those outlined in the report? And what does all this imply for our press freedom?
The women journalists The Ladies Finger spoke to, all said that the gendered attacks they suffer have not been paid enough attention. Their experiences of intimidation, threats and violence are not still not taken seriously enough.
These journalists argue that they are forced to worry about additional threats when they are reporting simply because they are women. Revati Laul, who is a freelance journalist, points out that she has to constantly think about safety and the possibility of harassment. Priyanka Dubey, a freelance investigative reporter, echoes this sentiment when she asks, “I’m always thinking about who is going to come and bang my door in the middle of the night when I’m reporting alone in remote areas and staying in seedy hotels. Who am I supposed to talk to about this fear?”
Politics and corruption the ‘deadliest beats’ in India
In 56%of the 27 murder cases recorded by the CPJ, the victims were working on stories of politics and corruption, implying that these subjects put them at a substantially greater risk. Many women journalists agree with the CPJ that politics and corruption are the two ‘deadliest beats’ in India. Revati Laul is currently working on a book on the convicts of the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre. She was slapped and punched by one of the convicts, Suresh Chhara, when she went to interview him after his release on parole in January.
Neha Dixit is a freelance journalist who published a cover story with Outlook magazine in July – called Operation #Beti Uthao –“a five-part investigation on how the Sangh Parivar flouted every Indian and international law on child right to traffic 31 young tribal girls from Assam to Punjab and Gujarat to ‘Hinduise’ them.” Dixit has subsequently faced attacks both in the press and on social media, including hate speech and threats of violence. Fake accounts, where trolls impersonated and abused her emerged on Facebook and Twitter with handles like @Neha_DickShit, @Neha_EatsDick and@NehaDipShit. A photograph of Dixit with her husband in their bedroom was circulated where her husband was called a Naxalite, along with discussions on whether the “payment” was “in cash or kind”. Worse, BJP workers filed an FIR in Guwahati against Dixit, Outlook’s editor and publisher for allegedly promoting enmity among different groups on grounds of religion. Krishna Prasad, Outlook’s then editor-in-chief, was suddenly replaced without explanation after the case was filed.
It is the evening of February 7, 2016. I hear approaching sounds of a ‘julus’ (rally) with rhythmic slogans. I can’t understand what is being shouted and so get down to write my story on a fake encounter in Mardum village that I visited the previous day.
I hear the sounds approaching nearer and nearer. They stop right outside my gate.
I had read in the papers this morning about an anti-Naxal programme organised by the Samajik Ekta Manch (SEM), a vigilante group of the Chhattisgarh police, which included burning an effigy of ‘naxal samarthaks’ at the market. (The SEM today stands disbanded since India Today’s sting operation that showed the state police admitting on camera that the police in Bastar work in close association with them. It has reemerged in other forms like AGNI, with the full blessings of the police.)
When they stop at my gate, they are yelling slogans — ‘Naxal samarthak Bastar choddo, Bastar choddo! (Naxal supporter, leave Bastar!)’, ‘Malini Subramaniam murdabad-murdabad! (Down with Malini Subramaniam!)’ I rush out, shocked to see a group of 15-20 SEM men shouting outside my house.
Of course, I recognise the members; they had met me a month earlier on January 10, when the same men, sloganeering outside my gate, had visited me at 8:30 pm, aggressively asking me all kinds of personal and professional questions. There were clear indications of threats to ‘mend my ways’, and make sure I don’t sully the image of Bastar police through my writing. Once they left, I was visited at 11 pm that night by the police, who came in two jeeps. They asked me mundane questions about my background and insisted on entering my house. I didn’t let them in, telling them they had no order to do so. I told them that my young daughter – a teenage school-going girl – was asleep. She was already shaken by the aggressive approach of the SEM earlier that day — “Had you been a man, they would probably have slapped you!” she had said when they left.
But today on February 7, these men don’t stop at sloganeering. They speak to my neighbours, inciting them. Some women from the neighbourhood tell me later that the men said that I supply arms to the Maoists and could potentially harm them and so ‘Naxal supporters’ should not be allowed to live in the colony. As they were sloganeering, I try speaking to the superintendent of police, Bastar, who refuses to take my call.
It is clear that the police, through the SEM, is targeting me because of my reporting for Scroll on human rights violations in the region, including Adivasi protests against police brutality and fake encounters, allegations of sexual violence by security forces and the torture of journalists like Santosh Yadav. I had been living in Chhattisgarh since 2009 and for three years, since 2011, I worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) heading their humanitarian support programme in the districts of Bijapur and Sukma, until the programme winded up in 2013. I continued to live in Jagdalpur, Bastar, and began writing for Scroll.in in 2015.
This is not the end of it today, though. A few hours later, at 2 am, I wake up hearing crashing sounds. I go outside and see several stones lying on my porch. My car’s windshield is smashed.
The next day, I try to file an FIR. The police refuse and only allow me to file a complaint. When I finally manage to file the FIR and investigations begin, the investigating officer starts threatening witnesses who file statements in my favour. A written complaint is immediately put to the collector. When this fails, the police begin detaining my domestic help for long hours and threaten my landlord into evicting us.
My domestic help, Prachi, is taken in for questioning on February 17, around 8.30 pm and the police only let her go at midnight. Around the same time, I get a call from my landlord in Raipur. He is terrified because the police have called him, telling him he has to come to Jagdalpur immediately for questioning. “What kind of people do you rent your house to,” the police asked him. They take Prachi in for questioning again the next day at 8 am. They confiscate her phone for hours and don’t let her talk to me. Our repeated requests to release her fail.
Meanwhile, things are heating up for the lawyers from Jagdalpur Legalaid Group (JagLAG), one of whom is my lawyer. Their landlord is also forced to evict them. SEM reached their place with a rally accusing them of being Naxal sympathisers. With my domestic help in the thana, my landlord is forced to issue an eviction notice for my immediate departure from Bastar. My editor’s attempt to reach out to higher authorities in Raipur fails. At this point, my editors tell me that it’s time I leave.
It’s not that reporting isn’t allowed, it’s just that it has to be on topics that the police approve of. A vicious campaign has been conducted in local newspapers and local channels against social researcher Bela Bhatia, JagLAG lawyers and me. We don’t have local channels, but neighbours tell me that these channels were showing photographs of us, suggesting that these women drink foreign liquor and dance around, establishing us as ‘bad characters’. I was also constantly queried by the SEM members and the police (mahila thana) about my personal background, why I lived alone without my husband, and who visits me.
— Malini Subramaniam, freelance journalist & development professional
It’s almost like sexual harassment and violence has become a non-issue now
The threats that Indian women journalists receive – for reporting on public interest stories that implicate powerful people – are very often sexual in nature. Geeta Seshu, a Mumbai-based consulting editor at the media scrutiny website The Hoot who contributed to the CPJ report, remembers a case where a woman journalist in Agra was raped for the work she was doing.
When she began her career, Priyanka Dubey would get phone calls or texts from unknown men who she says seemed to know where she was every time they called her. They would say to her sarcastically, “Bahut likh rahi hai [You’re writing a lot these days],” followed by threats of rape. Dubey says she didn’t file any police complaints because she knew that if that happened, her family would stop her from pursuing her career. One day, she yelled back at one of the threatening men on the phone—“I realise now that perhaps it wasn’t the best way to deal with the situation because it could have gone either way,” she says.
Neha Dixit, who has faced abuse and threats of violence many times for her work, says that it’s almost like such threats have become a non-issue now because they happen so regularly and incessantly. “When you publish a story, the discussion is not about the story – it’s about your sex life. In my case [of the recent Outlook story], officiating members of the ruling party were re-tweeting such tweets. A male journalist doesn’t face this kind of backlash, he is not sexually abused,” she says.
In January 2015, six reporters at Khabar Lahariya, a collective of rural women journalists largely from Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds in UP and Bihar, faced intimidation and harassment by a stalker who would call them from numerous phone numbers. The caller identified himself as Nishu and threatened and intimidated them for months. “How can I describe how he broke us?” Kavita from Khabar Lahariya told The Ladies Finger. “We journalists who thought we’d made something of ourselves. Rama [name changed] began to look grey in a way I had not seen her in 15 years of working together. Nishu threatened to have her killed on sight, raaste mein goli se uda dega. For the first time, I saw Mumtaz [name changed] spontaneously weep when we met.” Police complaints didn’t make any difference. The Ladies Finger reported this in September 2015, and the subsequent swell of support on social media forced the UP CM’s office to issue directives for the police to take action. Two days later, the culprit was caught and arrested.
Earlier this year, a senior woman journalist was threatened on Twitter with gang rape when she asked people to join a protest – ironically, the protest itself was against the violence against other journalists at Delhi’s Patiala House Courts where sedition charges against JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar were being heard.
Such harassment of women journalists comes in many different guises. Rahi Gaikwad, a Dalit journalist, was once reporting a story of caste atrocity in a Gujarat village. When she arrived at the upper caste families’ village, she approached a man sitting outside his house for directions. To her shock, she realised that he was filming her on his phone. The man refused to acknowledge he’d been filming her when Gaikwad protested, and deleted the footage only when she shouted at him and threatened to make it an issue.
The recent IFJ report on press freedom in South Asia also points to several cases where women journalists have been sexually harassed at the workplace. In August 2015, a woman journalist heading the Chhattisgarh bureau of IND 24 TV was fired after she complained of sexual harassment by the channel head. In another case, two women journalists filed an FIR against Rupesh Samant, senior principal correspondent of PTI news agency in Goa, for stalking, sending them lewd messages and making sexual advances. Similarly, in January 2016, a New-Delhi based journalist employed with Assam Talks, a news channel, filed a complaint of sexual assault against two senior journalists. She said that the channel’s editor-in-chief had also tried to force her to have sex with an Assamese political leader.
Sindhu Sooryakumar, the chief co-ordinating editor at Asianet News TV, received over 2,000 abusive phone calls calling her, among other things, a sex worker, after she moderated a discussion around Smriti Irani’s reference to Mahishasur Jayanti in her Lok Sabha speech on Rohith Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar and JNU. The threats came from right-wing Hindutva groups, who accused Sooryakumar of calling goddess Durga a sex worker on the show.
Rohini Mohan, a freelance journalist and author of a book of reportage on Sri Lanka’s civil war, recounts an incident from when she was reporting a land-grab story in Noida. A man’s land had been grabbed without his knowledge – according to records, the land didn’t belong to him anymore because he was considered dead. This man took Mohan and her male camera operator to his retirement office to show them proof his being still alive – the fact that he was still receiving pension. Mohan had made an appointment with the retirement office manager, but as soon as they entered, people from the office started coming towards her. They started asking Mohan what she was shooting on their camera and tried to take it away. Mohan pleaded with them — “These men were my father’s age,” she says. They began to beat up the camera man, and when Mohan stood in front of them thinking this would deter them, they beat and molested her as well.
Journalist Nutan Manmohan was once interviewing a man who had been accused of conducting hawala transactions. When she began to ask him uncomfortable questions, he became incensed and refused to allow her to leave. Madhu Trehan, founding editor of India Today and co-founder of Newslaundry, tells the story of how she helped to take action against this man. According to Trehan, however, such situations are somewhat rarer now since people are more aware of the consequences to their actions. “I think a woman going to interview a politician, say, in Bihar or UP – I haven’t heard of a politician who passes a lewd remark [now]. Usually, women journalists are very fierce and know how to handle the situation,” she says.
“There is a patronising attitude among many people in power when they talk to you, but I just grit my teeth and bear it,” says Mohan. She adds that when reporting in the middle of a large crowd, she finds that holding a camera tends to open up the space and make others around her respect her personal space a bit more. “In conflict areas, I [also] find that I’m safer because people don’t fear my presence. [And] when it’s a mob-like situation, being a woman or a man doesn’t really matter, but there is sexual harassment.”
Regional journalists find themselves abandoned
As the CPJ report indicates, journalists face much more daily difficulties in rural and remote areas. Almost all 27 murdered journalists mentioned in the report were regional reporters. Women journalists in these areas face more than their share of legal threats, but they also have to tackle a constant sense of danger to their physical safety.
One example is how Khabar Lahariya journalists say they often have to hear dismissive comments like “Mahilayien kya patrakari karengi? [What journalism can women do?]” and are denied information simply because they are women. They wouldn’t be taken seriously. Instead, Meera, the chief reporter for Khabar Lahariya from Banda says, “Log hamein kamzor samajhte hain, unko vishwas nahi hota hai ki hum bhi patrakaar ban sakte hain [People think we are weak, they don’t think we too can be journalists].” But this doesn’t stop them from continuing to report on issues of violence against women, politics, development and crime.
Geeta Seshu thinks in general the level of threat is greater for field journalists, and there is a further gendered aspect to it as well. However, she also points that that we don’t have enough women speaking out about this and we’re not documenting their experiences enough.
It is 2013 and I’m working on a story for Khabar Lahariya newspaper in Banda district, Uttar Pradesh. I have recently met a woman who told me that some men in her family are not allowing her to get her share of the family property, including a house they own some distance away from Banda, and I think it is a potential story. Soon after, a female colleague and I set out to talk to the men one afternoon.
When we reach the house, nobody is home except for the quarrelling children’s elderly mother. We interview her and take some photographs. As we’re leaving, she tells us to wait a bit since she’ll try to call her sons home.
The two brothers, who seem to be between 35-40 years old, arrive immediately on bikes, and they are already very angry. The house is located in a sort of narrow corridor with other houses next to it. The men park their bikes at the entrance to the lane and block our way. They yell and yell at us. They snatch our newspaper copies and visiting cards, throw them on the floor and stamp on them.
One man shouts that he is going to call the police. I encourage him in this apparent threat, assuming the cops will obviously be on our side since we’ve done nothing wrong except our job as reporters. Nobody from the neighbouring houses comes to help us.
Then one of the men gets down to business – he snatches my camera and demands to see the photos we’ve taken. He wants us to delete all the photos.
The other man says, “Tum logon ko bahut shauk hai photography karne ka? Aayo mere bedroom ki photography karo. Mein dikhata hoon kis tarah ki photography hoti hai. [You are very keen on photography, are you? Come and take some photos of my bedroom. I’ll show you what photography happens there.]”
It takes us two hours before we finally manage to escape. I don’t even remember how we managed to leave. We go to the Banda police station the same day to file an FIR, but the police say nothing can be done…because they are influential men.
— Meera, chief reporter in Banda, Khabar Lahariya
How do we make Indian journalism safer?
Even during the attack on Rohini Mohan and her cameraman, her colleague was worried about the camera being broken since he knew it would be taken out of his salary. When they returned to office, their media employer did not support them – Mohan says she was simply asked if she was okay in a manner that suggested the only right response could be ‘yes’. The money required to fix the camera was indeed taken out of her colleague’s salary.
The CPJ report contemplates various ways to make Indian conditions safer for journalists. Sumit Galhotra, lead author of the CPJ report, says that one of their recommendations is to bring together a group of experienced jurists and journalists to submit draft proposals for national-level journalist safety. He argues that while CPJ doesn’t have specific details of what they should look at in the proposal, the Indian government can begin by bringing people together. The report argues that in Mexico, for instance, a federal prosecutor’s office was set up to look into attacks on the press, and Galhotra says that similar federalisation is possibly a solution in India too. Furthermore, media houses providing both security and hostile-environment training to staff and freelancers, and ensuring press identification cards could help the situation.
Beyond these suggestions, though, there exist the deeper problems of tackling gender biases and imbalance. For example, just last year Rajyavardhan Rathore, the minister of state for information and broadcasting, chose to specifically discuss the various challenges faced by women journalists in India – from working hours and conditions to “areas like sports, battlefields, vulnerable areas, Maoist-infested areas.” His solution? That women journalists would be “far better utilised without actually going out in the field”, explaining that “there is a degree of difficulty attached [to this work] because as a mother, sister and other roles that you [women journalists] all play”. Thus women should simply stick to deskwork “from whichever location you are in with the technology that you have”, instead of trying to go out to report in the world.
Beyond such myopic views, however, what do women journalists themselves feel could help them.
Dixit suggests that medical and other insurance should be provided to independent journalists, emphasising that the danger increases when women report alone in the field – especially physical safety. “When I’m held hostage like I was when I was doing my last story, or I’m doing assignments in areas from where I can have no contact for days with people from home or with my editors, who am I supposed to complain to when something happens on the ground?” she asks. Laul reiterates this when she says, “Safety and transport – these are the areas in which you need your back covered more than a man.”
Like Dixit, Laul also feels that media organisations need to be more enabling for women. For instance, she says, there must be a budget set aside for reporters travelling to places that are not safe so that their stay and transport are not compromised on. Mohan agrees with this, pointing out that as a freelancer she is expected to manage her stay when reporting outside her hometown, and she has often been forced to find guesthouses affiliated to temples or churches only because they are safer. On one occasion in Guntur, she took an overnight bus just to reach a safer place because the only other option she’d had was a seedy hotel where she didn’t feel safe. Seshu adds that a continuing lack of concern from media organisations has worsened the situation for their own journalists, exposing them to greater risks.
Several women journalists agree with the CPJ report that there is little outrage among the media fraternity, as well as society at large, when journalists are attacked or harassed. They point to the sore need for an effective organisation that exclusively addresses such issues. Dixit states that in the recent Outlook case, only international institutions have reported and analysed the backlash she has faced. “As a freelancer, who can I go and complain to about the abuse I face online?” she asks.
Dubey suggests that there be an organisation that provides legal advice to journalists who face cases for the stories that they report.
Laul argues it would also help to have a space where journalists who have worked on risky stories can input their cumulative knowledge and advice for others.
Women journalists do face the same kind of threats that male journalists face and yet it remains important to note that they also face additional harassment for their work that is obviously gendered. And as they themselves suggest, there is an urgent need to talk about these different kinds of experiences that hinder their work and compromise press freedom in India.
So what is it that keeps these women journalists going, despite all the hazards involved?
Dubey says that her reporting rests on the hope that something might change for the people she is writing about.
“The case [of the harasser Nishu] is bigger than us, bigger than the problems we’ve faced as women journalists,” Kavita from Khabar Lahariya told The Ladies Finger. “It reflects on bigger social problems for women – rural women, college students, everyone – and those make our work important. It’s always been important to us and we’ll keep doing it.”
Subramaniam says firmly that not reporting is not really an option because that is exactly what the people attacking her want — they want to stop news from coming out. “Media is considered the fourth pillar of democracy. During state repression, freedom of press is the first casualty,” she says. “If democracy is to thrive, freedom of press will have to emerge stronger in the face of repression and I’m a strong advocate of democracy. What I faced in Bastar only compels me to write all the more.”
Ila Ananya is a staff writer at The Ladies Finger, where this article first appeared.
The Ladies Finger is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.