In India, Journalists Face Slut-Shaming and Rape Threats
By Rana Ayyub
Ms. Ayyub is an Indian journalist.
The New York Times, May 22, 2018
Protesters in New Delhi in October demanded justice for Gauri Lankesh, a journalist and outspoken critic of Hindu nationalists; Govind Panesar, a left-wing politician; Narendra Dabhalkar, a rationalist; and M.M. Kalburgi, a scholar, all of whom have been killed in the past few years.CreditMohd Zakir/Hindustan Times, via Getty Images
MUMBAI, India — I work as an investigative and political journalist. Two years back, I published a book — after going undercover for eight months — about the complicity of Narendra Modi, now prime minister of India, and Amit Shah, now president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in riots in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat. I also reported on several extrajudicial murders in the state between 2002 and 2006 that Mr. Shah was accused of being involved in.
Like many of my colleagues, I regularly write and speak about the violence against India’s minorities and lower-caste groups and have called out Mr. Modi’s silence on the violence and his dog-whistle politics.
For the past few years, like several female journalists critical of the Hindu nationalist politics and government, I have been targeted by an apparently coordinated social media campaign that slut-shames, deploys manipulated images with sexually explicit language, and threatens rape. Mr. Modi and several of his ministers embolden the virtual mob by following them on social media.
Yet nothing had prepared me for what was thrown at me in the past month. On April 22, I was alarmed to find a quotation supporting child rapists falsely attributed to me and going viral on Twitter. A parody account of Republic TV, India’s leading right-wing television network, had posted the quotation.
I received numerous messages shaming me for supporting child rapists. A Facebook page called Yogi Adityanath Ki Sena, or the Army of Yogi Adityanath, translated the tweet into Hindi and circulated it on social media. Mr. Adityanath is the firebrand Hindu nationalist monk who was elected the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India, last April.
I tweeted a clarification about the falsehood to no avail: My social media accounts and my phone were inundated with WhatsApp messages urging others to gang-rape me. Various leaders of Mr. Modi’s party, who promoted the lie, refused to delete their tweets despite my pointing it out.
The following day, on April 23, another tweet was generated using Photoshop and attributed to me. “I hate India and Indians,” it said. The online mob asked me to pack my bags and leave for Pakistan, some threatened to tear my clothes and drag me out of the country while invoking the genocidal violence between Hindus and Muslims during the partition of India in 1947.
In the evening, an activist from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist mother ship, alerted me to a scurrilous pornographic video being shared on various WhatsApp groups. He had received it from a group with many Bharatiya Janata Party members: a two-minute, 20-second pornographic video of a sex act with my face morphed onto another woman.
Despite our political differences, he was upset at this new low. He urged me to take legal action to keep it from spreading further.
A minute later, he shared the video with me. I was with a friend in a cafe in New Delhi. I saw the first two frames and froze. I wanted to vomit and fought tears. My friend got me a glass of water. “How could they?” I threw up and burst into tears.
I called a friend who worked in tech forensics. He said it was a clear fake, probably produced with a new app called Deepfake. His words did not console me. The video was on my phone and on numerous others across the country.
Minutes later, my social media timelines and notifications were filled with screenshots of the video. Some commented on how prostitution was my forte. I went into a frenzy blocking them, but they were everywhere, on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some commenters asked what I charged for sex, others described my body. Many claiming to be nationalist Hindus sent pictures of themselves naked.
I started getting screenshots from friends of a Twitter account created in my name. I was doxxed. A tweet with my name, picture, phone number and address was being circulated. “I am available,” it said. Someone sent my father a screenshot of the video. He was silent on the phone while I cried. After a while he spoke in a sad, heavy voice. “I am surprised this did not happen earlier,” he said. “They want to break you. The choice is yours.”
I asked a friend to take charge of my Facebook account and send me screenshots and links of every message posted to my inbox. The reporter in me wanted the digital record, but I shuddered every time my phone beeped.
I have no way of finding out who produced the video. What I do know is this: Most of the Twitter handles and Facebook accounts that posted the pornographic video and screenshots identify themselves as fans of Mr. Modi and his party, and argue for turning India into a “Hindu rashtra” — a country for Hindus only, where religious minorities have almost no rights. I reported several of those accounts to the cybercrime section of the Delhi Police.
That night the administrator of a Facebook page called Varah Sena wrote, “See, Rana, what we spread about you; this is what happens when you write lies about Modi and Hindus in India.” The comment was posted along with the concocted video on Facebook and Twitter. (The page was deleted after I filed the police complaint.)
The slut-shaming and hatred felt like being punished by a mob for my work as a journalist, an attempt to silence me. It was aimed at humiliating me, breaking me by trying to define me as a “promiscuous,” “immoral” woman.
As I collected myself, I thought of Gauri Lankesh, the editor and outspoken critic of Hindu nationalists, who was murdered outside her home in Bangalore last September. She had published my book in the Kannada language.
Several handlers of these social media accounts, who posted and circulated the pornographic video, had celebrated her death. And some of them were and continue to be followed on Twitter by the prime minister of India.
Mr. Modi has repeatedly talked about changing Indian lives through technology. Four years into his term, his followers have indeed found a vigorous use for technology: curtailing criticism and normalizing hatred and misogyny.
Rana Ayyub is the author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.”
السلام علیکم و رحمۃ اللہ و برکاتہ!
محمّد عبد الحمید