At 3:30 pm on Friday, the Editors Guild of India revealed that their webinar on reporting challenges from regions where Naxals are active was “subjected to relentless disruption by cyber attackers”. “Multiple encroachers posted obscene messages and videos,” the guild explained, adding that the webinar had to be shut down without even one of the guests getting a chance to speak.
The guest speakers included journalists Malini Subramaniam, PV Kondal Rao, Milind Umare, Tameshwar Sinha, Faisal Anurag, and Purnima Tripathi. The aborted webinar was part of the guild’s series "Unheard Voices: Reporting from Conflict Zones". In a separate instance, a press conference organized by the not-for-profit organisation Dhanak in New Delhi was also disrupted today where interfaith couples who were sharing their stories were abused and threatened with police action, The Wire .
Giving details of the cyber attack in a press release, the guild said, “Within a few minutes of the webinar starting, some of the participants started posting frivolous song videos. The meeting host tried shutting down the window of each such guest, but the number of such disruptors kept on increasing. Soon, some of them started posting obscene messages on group chat as well as shared screens with pornographic content and abusive language.”
Subramaniam spoke to Newslaundry about her experience, which she described as “scary” and “definitely not a technical glitch”. She did not usually attend zoom webinars but felt this was a good opportunity especially since the Editors Guild was organising it.
Subramaniam has an award-winning to her name detailing the struggles of the Adivasis of central India and the excesses committed against them by the Indian state as also the Maoist guerrillas
She said, “At 3:05 pm you could hear somebody singing very loudly and an Indian man in a vest who wasn’t speaking suddenly flashed on the screen. They had only just started introducing the speakers when there were loud noises and music started playing. My computer went off and came back on on its own. I was stumped.”
“You could see some pornographic pictures on some of the screens and some completely shocked people, including the organisers,” she continued. “I then got a message saying that somebody was sharing my screen and you could see that somebody was typing. I got really scared because it felt like someone had hacked my computer. I immediately switched it off, and called the organisers and told them that I had logged out. They had made it completely open, where anyone could join and it became dangerous. In a matter of five to seven minutes we had to just shut it down.”
Referring to it as “zoom bombing”, Laxmi Murthy of the Network of Women in Media, India, who was a participant in the webinar, said the disruption was “professional and coordinated”.
“The minute one would be thrown out another one would come or the same person would do it. I am a bit surprised that more features were not enabled. It happened several times over,” she recounted. “There were a bunch of people doing it and they were also using different names. They essentially hijacked the whole space and everyone had to leave. It is a pity and I think this had to do with the sensitivity of the topic. It was clear that certain elements didn’t want the discussion to happen.”
She revealed that they had dealt with a similar “zoom bombing” at the NWMI in early days of the Covid pandemic. “The meetings would be disrupted with porn being shared on one screen, there were disruptions in the chat box and abusive violent and sexist comments. We got used to it and routinely instituted various levels of filtering so it did not happen again. We stopped sharing links too early and got people dedicated to the backend to moderate the waiting room. It's essentially just about getting used to the technology. Initially one wasn't prepared but gradually one learns the features to have more control.”
The Editors Guild described today’s incident as “a blatant attack on freedom of speech” and demanded that the Cyber police investigate it. The guild though hasn’t yet filed a complaint.