“We never imagined the police would release him on the same day. After all, he was already on bail, having been arrested last year on exactly the same charges. We expected his bail to be cancelled,” says Sonia Arunkumar, a journalist with a private news channel in Tamil Nadu.
Arunkumar is referring to Kishore K Swamy, a political commentator and prolific troll who targets journalists, especially women journalists. Those he has targeted online — both men and women — speak of vicious and obscene personal attacks, often sexual in nature.
For the second time in less than a year, Swamy was picked up by the police on July 29 under Sections 509 and 354D of the Indian Penal Code and Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act. Charges include stalking and insulting the modesty of a woman through word, gesture or act. There are at least three FIRs against him and several police complaints, some from as far as seven years ago, but complainants told Newslaundry that no proportionate action has been taken. Both times, he was out of police custody in a few hours.
“This is a man whose harassment had driven one woman journalist to attempt suicide, another had to seek therapy, and yet another quit the profession. He is a habitual offender who has caused so many of us mental agony and humiliation at work and at home,” says Arunkumar.
But who is Kishore K Swamy?
According to Jayabathuri, a member of the Tamil Nadu Women Journalist Forum, or TNWJF, Swamy is a political chameleon and, while primarily aligned to the right, has at various points been aligning himself with different parties, shifting loyalties from the governing All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to its offshoot, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, and more recently to Rajinikanth and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Swamy’s harassment of journalists takes place online; he has 1.2 lakh followers on Facebook and nearly 60,000 on Twitter. He is not officially a member of any political party. A self-proclaimed “political analyst”, he appears on videos on politics on YouTube, and has occasionally been invited for debates by lesser known TV channels. The bigger channels do not touch him.
None of the journalists who Swamy targets have ever crossed paths with him before.
In one instance, he called one journalist a “bus stand prostitute”. He went after another for supposedly not revealing that she drinks alcohol though she said that she enjoys eating beef.
In another post, he referred to a woman journalist by name and named her employer, and wrote: “How does it matter to us if you smoke marijuana by the beach? Or freak out inside a bungalow? It's only because you say you are an activist that we are shedding light on your activism. I'll ask you plainly, aren't you ashamed? If I were you, I would go into the flesh trade and say it proudly too.”
Swamy also often posts salacious gossip about journalists’ supposed affairs with their bosses, colleagues, politicians and even actors. Posting several times a day on Facebook and Twitter, his recent attack on News18 Tamil Nadu included accusing the TV channel’s journalists of being , and . His posts received hundreds of retweets and thousands of likes.
This is Swamy’s pattern: baseless allegations, rooted in misogyny.
Complaints, but Swamy says ‘nothing can touch him’
Senior journalist Kavin Malar told Newslaundry that Swamy began targeting her after her coverage of an alleged honour killing in 2013.
That’s when she filed a police complaint against him.
“I waited a whole year. When nothing came of it, I went to court,” she says. “The FIR was filed only after the court directed the police to do so. I submitted a bound volume containing screenshots of all the derogatory comments he made about me; it was like a PhD thesis.” She laughs wryly. “But nothing happened. He has political influence certainly, but the kind that rowdies have.” What this means is that his influence is rarely overt, but heavily implied.
Soon, it was no longer possible to ignore him.
“He pretends to be Julian Assange, ‘exposing’ things to the world,” says Arunkumar. “How are we supposed to go do our work after things like that have been said? Imagine being the subject of such discussions by your colleagues. It’s deeply embarrassing. And painful for our families as well.”
In July, a prominent editor filed a complaint against Swamy for defamatory and derogatory posts on social media, after Swamy said the editor was a “sexual predator”. Last year, two complaints were filed against him. The first was for posting an abusive article using private pictures, and the second for inciting communal hatred and attacking the complainant on the basis of religion, when he called a journalist a “jihadi”, among other things. Other complaints against him include harassment, unauthorised use of personal photos, cyberstalking, targeted harassment, creating a fake profile in a complainant’s name, and insulting the modesty of women.
On July 22, the TNWJF filed an online complaint against Swamy.
“Considering all the unaddressed complaints before, I never had hope for any action,” says one member of the forum, who wishes to remain anonymous. But Swamy’s latest attack on her had strong prima facie evidence of harassment, she says, and the forum decided to try once again to get him to stop.
On the night of July 28, the member says, she got a phone call from the deputy police commissioner of the cyber cell that her complaint was being taken forward. She was also told that she should sign the FIR the next day.
“By the time I went there in the morning, a team had already been dispatched to apprehend him. I was quite impressed with all this proactive action,” she says. “I sat the whole day, filling the FIR, giving my statement, pulling up URLs and screenshots.”
Swamy, meanwhile, was reportedly absconding. The police finally brought him in on July 29. “Even in the midst of the manhunt he had managed another sexist social media post, saying nothing can touch him,” she says.
True to his word, Swamy was released by midmorning the next day. The Chennai City Police that the accused had been served notice, an enquiry had been conducted, and his mobile phone was seized. “The investigation is going on,” the statement added.
The police statement created a furore. Journalists, including members of the TNWJF and the Network of Women in Media, India, petitioned chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami to authorise real action in the case. The petition read: “As a government that runs in the name of J Jayalalithaa, it is of concern that you do not have zero tolerance towards women harassment and are not providing utmost priority to women safety and security.”
A crusade for right-leaning voices
The furore continued on social media, with the BJP wading in.
When Swamy was arrested, several BJP party leaders, including national secretary , state general secretary, and president of the party’s art and culture wing tweeted that freedom of expression in the state was being restricted to those favoured by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Opposition party in the state.
On Swamy’s release, Raja those who “helped stand by the side of justice”.
Raja says the police had not charged Swamy with anything. These were “imagined allegations”, he told this correspondent, and the real crime was the manner in which the police picked Swamy up. “The CCTV footage...shows them gatecrashing into his house, threatening his lone, aged mother, and searching the whole house without a warrant,” Raja says.
Raja claims there’s “media terrorism” in Tamil Nadu. “The first family of the DMK is deciding what matters should be debated by the media. Tamil nationalists and separatists, jihadis, urban naxals, evangelists — the whole media has come under the control of these elements and owners of the channels have no say.”
Adding that right-leaning voices were “under attack” in the state, he says, “In such a situation, for the sake of democratising the autocratic media in the state, we have to support these nationalist voices that have come to the fore. It is duty bound of all democratic forces to see that Tamil Nadu is freed from these urban naxals and Tamil separatists.”
True to this, there has been an upheaval in the Tamil media in recent weeks. It started with allegations of pro-Dravidian partisanship levelled against News18 Tamil Nadu by Maridhas, a popular YouTuber who aligns with the Right. The TV channel against Maridhas. Its Tamil Nadu bureau chief, Haseef Mohamed, and senior editor M Gunasekaran subsequently resigned, with Gunasekaran that News18 Tamil Nadu did not favour any single political party.
A well-known blogger on politics told Newslaundry that the BJP in Tamil Nadu “has not been able to push their agenda in the studio or the editorial room, unlike in the Hindi media and some English channels”, despite the party “trying for some time”.
“At the same time, they couldn’t target mainstream media openly,” the blogger says. “So, they use people like Kishore and Maridhas to mount the attack and demoralise journalists.”
And the party has seen remarkable success in a short period. Apart from the resignations following the Maridhas affair, there has been a noticeable shift in representation and editorial themes at several top news channels like News7 and News18, says Jayabathuri, a journalist and member of the TNWFJ.
Jayabathuri says that after Swamy was arrested on July 29, four state ministers called the police commissioner asking for his release. She says this was at the behest of the BJP’s H Raja.
The popular opinion in journalism circles is that the likes of Swamy, Maridhas and Madan Ravichandran, another YouTuber who “exposes” the media, are tools that the BJP uses to reclaim the space and influence that Brahminical forces in the media have lost over the last two decades.
According to Kavin, until 15-20 years ago, media spaces in the state were entirely dominated by Brahmins. It's only recently that people from outside the community have been slowly making their way into the profession, even though they still largely haven't reached management positions.
“So, when we go up against Kishore K Swamy, it’s not the individual but the whole machinery that is supporting him,” Kavin says.
While Swamy’s harassment of journalists has been going on for years, the BJP’s newfound support for him — as seen in H Raja’s comments on social media and to Newslaundry — only renews his licence to continue his harassment campaigns with impunity. The attempt to make this about the freedom of expression of right-wing commentators only undermines the abuse he inflicts, and has inflicted, for years.
“The BJP brought up the DMK in their tweets about Kishore K Swamy. That is not our fight,” says Arunkumar firmly. “No one is questioning freedom of expression. We are talking about these targeted attacks on individuals with obscene comments. He is answerable to how it has affected us women journalists. What he says on the internet stays there forever. It can come back to haunt us years from now. It’s scary.”
Kishore K Swamy could not be reached for comment. On July 31, he on Thamarai TV, a right-leaning YouTube channel, claiming that the Opposition is “acting through the media”, and that he’s only bringing to the public conscience complaints that cannot be resolved through other means. He also emphasised that his was a crusade of a “common man”.
On August 3, the TNWJF filed a complaint against Swamy, Maridhas and BJP functionary Kalyanaraman for threatening journalists. The complaint was accepted.
Update: Journalist Jayabathuri's quotes in this piece have been updated.
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