2018: The year Indian women journalists took the power back

2018 is a catalogue of the battles these women faced, but also a tectonic shift in public response following #MeToo.

ByRituparna Chatterjee
2018: The year Indian women journalists took the power back
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In a year of “unprecedented hostilities” towards journalists, “nearly half” the media deaths were from countries that are not at war—India, Mexico and, for the first time, the US—according to a report by the non-governmental, non-profit media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). India, RSF said, was one of the deadliest countries for journalists with six fatalities, attempts to murder, and online hate campaigns targeting journalists.

It’s been a disquieting year for women in media. It has also been a year of outstanding courage and resilience. From death threats to sustained harassment from both governmental and non-governmental agencies and shadow armies online, women have had to take on a bruising battle just to be able to do their job.

In May this year, Masrat Zahra, a Srinagar-based freelance photojournalist who captures the conflict in one of the world’s most militarised zones, posted on Facebook a candid picture one of her colleagues shot of her thick in action in Shopian district of Jammu and Kashmir. Zahra, who is seen half crouching in the photo, surrounded by Indian Army men in an orchard, captioned it “Gun vs Camera”. Within hours she was called a “mukhbir”, or informer, and was the target of a cycle of harassment women who on social media platforms know intimately.

Journalist Rana Ayyub, who won two awards this year—the Outlook Youth Icon of The Year and the Most Resilient Global Journalist at the Peace Palace in Hague—was the target of a deepfake pornographic clip for speaking up about the rape of a minor girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir. In the days that her harassment continued, she had to be sent to the hospital with heart palpitations, anxiety and high blood pressure caused purely due to stress. But the awards, she said, have come as a salve and acknowledgment of her work.

“It managed to ease my nerves for what has been the worst year of harassment and intimidation for my work,” Ayyub told Newslaundry. “(There were) fake tweets, rape and death threats, a morphed porn video circulated in my name after which I was doxed. I hope I can put this behind me and expect a saner and safer 2019 not just for me but for every journalist in the country in the months leading up to the general election.”

In April, an FIR was lodged against journalist and cartoonist Swathi Vadlamudi for allegedly hurting religious sentiments of Hindus for raising the issue of sexual harassment of women depicted through a cartoon on Ram and Sita.

Women aren’t alien to retributive action by law enforcement forces guided by majoritarian public sentiment. They understand the danger to which their field work exposes them in addition to gendered hate campaigns online. Often they are targets of all three with little or no support from institutions that are tasked with their protection.

In March this year journalist Emmy C Lawbei was baton-charged by the Assam police while she was out covering a students’ protest on the Assam-Mizoram border. Lawbei posted a photo of her shoulder and back with a patchwork of purple bruises that she sustained when the police started charging at her. She told them several time that she was a journalist. It didn’t matter.

Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times, came under attack in April when two motorcycle-borne assailants hurled a petrol bomb into a bedroom of her house. Thankfully, Mukhim escaped unhurt.

The threats kept coming.

“I will hang you,” Nidhi Razdan was told via an Instagram message. Journalists Sagarika Ghose, Shobha De, Arundhati Roy, among others, were part of an assassination hit list put up by one Vikram Aditya Rana on Facebook threatening them with the fate of slain journalist Gauri Lankesh.

In Chennai, journalist Sandhya Ravishankar took to Twitter to describe her targeted harassment after she published a four-part report on the mining mafia. The petrol tube of her bike was cut and the CCTV footage of her meeting with a former DGP in 2017 at a cafe in Chennai was leaked.

Media was often complicit in violating the rules that guide responsible reportage. Times Now in May broadcast two shows on the Tarun Tejpal rape case titled “Secrets of a dark night” that were both blatantly violative of India’s laws and a survivor’s right to privacy.

Independent journalist Swati Chaturvedi, who was awarded the RSF’s Prize for Courage this year, said she’ll remember 2018 for good reasons. “I did some investigative stories that had huge impact, such as the Rajan list of defaulters, and the expose on the India Foundation and  conflict of interest. Happily can’t even remember all (her stories from 2018), which is brilliant for a work-obsessed person. Winning the RSF prize for courage—the first Asian to be awarded—was the cherry on the cake,” she told Newslaundry.

The world watched in horror as a group of journalists—Saritha Balan (The News Minute), Radhika Ramaswamy (News18), Pooja Prasanna (Republic TV), Mausami Singh (India Today) and Sneha Mary Koshy (NDTV)—came under attack while covering the protests following a Supreme Court order overturning an age-old ban on the entry of women of menstrual age to the Sabarimala temple. Protestors smashed the windows of Ramaswamy’s car and kicked Balan. Singh was reportedly dragged from a nearby bus and slapped and stoned by protestors. Prasanna’s car was surrounded and she was attacked with sticks.

The already unsafe spaces that women work in are often vitiated further by the misogyny of those in power—the men who have hundreds under their command to threaten the safety of a woman with a stray comment. “Illiterate scoundrels are now in media,” BJP leader SV Shekher said after journalist Lakshmi Subramanian alleged that the Tamil Nadu governor “patronisingly” patted her on the cheek in order to evade a question asked by her.

But let this not be a cataloguing of the grounds women have been forced to give to be able to tell the stories that matter. Let this year be also remembered for the tectonic shift in public response following the #MeToo dialogue in India.

In a power move that cracked open the lid over news media’s most sordid open secret, an army of women exposed systemic sexual abuse in the newsrooms and the media gods that perpetrate them. The mask was pulled off the men who have built illustrious careers on the work, life and labour of women.

The fire that journalist Priya Ramani lit, scores of women carried forward. But for the courage of Pallavi Gogoi, Sandhya Menon, Shutapa Paul, Shuma Raha, Suparna Sharma, Prerna Singh Bindra, Kadambari Wade, Ghazala Wahab, Anoo Bhuyan, Japleen Pasricha, Sonora Jha, Avantika Mehta, Sharda Ugra and many, many other women, the resistance would have been years in coming.

This year has also tested the courage under fire of Dalit women reporters, particularly those reporting from the heartlands. The Khabar Lahariya team has brought out the stories of women’s fight against institutionalised patriarchy and domestic violence among others and their feedback from the ground after the second wave of #MeToo is heartening.

“Men have stopped sending porn videos, blue films and morphed photos for now. We can sense a fear from them that women might speak out of they say or do something objectionable,” Khabar Lahariya editor-in-chief Meera Devi told The Quint.

When asked to name the women reporters who stood out in 2018, senior journalist Laxmi Murthy told Newslaundry: “I don’t believe in making stars of anyone.” But she has her eyes set on specific goals for women in 2019. “Creating space for every woman journalist to have a voice, overcoming lack of privilege/barriers in language, region, caste and class. Visibilising the work of scores of women journalists whose contribution to journalism remains unacknowledged,” she added.

Make no mistake, women are fighting back—be it against structural misogyny, pay disparities, or lack of access to equal opportunities. Hopefully 2019 will be a year that will enable conversations that will help bridge the gap.

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