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Female Journalists, Called 'Presstitutes', Face Extreme Harassment in India

In a country that has seen 22 assaults on journalists since the beginning of 2016, female journalists are particularly vulnerable to online harassment, abusive phone calls, and death threats.

Chryselle D'Silva Dias

Chryselle D'Silva Dias

Barkha Dutt. Screengrab via YouTube

At around 2:30 AM on February 8, 2016, Indian journalist Malini Subramaniam heard the sound of metal hitting her back gate. She went outside; there were several large stones on her porch, and the rear window of her car was shattered.

Immediately, Subramaniam knew why this had happened. A former head of the Red Cross in Chattisgarh and one of a few reporters on human rights violations in the region, Subramaniam has written extensively about Chattisgarh for Scroll.in, a news website. Her stories—about rape allegations against security guards, protests against police, and even, appropriately, the harassment of journalists—ruffled many feathers in the remote region; local politicians demanded she stop writing. Subramaniam endured intimidation, late-night visits from the police, the rocks thrown at her home, and groups of men gathering outside her house, calling for her death. About a week after the rocks in her car window, she received an eviction notice from her landlord; she subsequently left Chattisgarh and moved to Hyderabad in southern India.

The attack on Subramaniam is just one in a long spate of incidents of violence against female journalists in India, which range from online threats (often sexual) to the real-life mob that showed up to Subramaniam's home. The harassment is widely condoned: In April 2015, India's minister of state for external affairs, General V. K. Singh made a comment that has since unleashed a thousand trolls. In response to criticism from an Indian TV channel, the former army chief used the word "presstitutes" to describe journalists who were criticizing him for an earlier comment. (He had said that making a visit to the embassy of Pakistan was "more exciting" than rescuing Indians from a combat zone in Yemen.) Singh was forced to apologize, but the damage was done: Since then, "presstitute" has become a popular term to insult journalists in India.

Although Singh was referring to the media in general, his comment was nevertheless gendered, and it came in a society where female journalists are particularly susceptible to harassment. "'Presstitute' is a horrible term for female journalists," says writer Mini Nair. "It is a way of debasing a woman and comes from the idea that women can be creative but not powerful in what they do. It is OK for a woman to write light, fluffy pieces but not those that challenge."

"The word 'prostitute' is highly unacceptable in our society and so people use it to demotivate and demoralize women," explains journalist Nisha Vijayan. "Being a person who respects prostitutes, I usually don't take ['presstitute'] seriously. But it affects others who are more sensitive."

Vijayan has been called a "presstitute," as well as a "prostitute," on a WhatsApp group where she questioned some male members about political claims they had made. "These guys blindly supported the prime minister and his party. When I questioned and countered all the claims they were making, it made them feel humiliated, so they resorted to sexist comments."

In another instance, where Vijayan was defending the right of women to enter temples in India, the same male member of the group accused her of having "loose morals."

"The heated war of words culminated in him calling me a prostitute," she told me. "I demanded an apology and complained to the group admins, but the admins did not act responsibly; they took sides, blaming me. I was told by some group members that I deserved that term because I was a feminist and outspoken."

These trolls are basically spineless; they can't stand a courageous woman.

Vijayan filed a police complaint but withdrew it when the man in question apologized for harassing her in front of police. "I always make it a point to confront those who use the term and make sure they apologize," she says. "This [trend of harassment], I would say, is a clear case of violence against women."

Others have not been so lucky. Earlier this year, Sindhu Suryakumar, a news anchor for Asianet News TV, a Malayalam TV channel, received over 2000 phone calls and messages for allegedly referring to Hindu goddess Durga as a sex worker. Suryakumar's phone number was posted to a WhatsApp group, where a member urged other members to call and abuse her. Five people were arrested, all with links to right-wing Hindu groups.

Other journalists, like veteran journalist and TV news anchor Barkha Dutt, have received threats of rape as well as death threats. While some women combat their abusers head on—Dutt has consistently said that "trolling is a mind game" and she refuses to let "keyboard bullies" intimidate her—the threat of violence is often enough to muzzle women online.

"I'm afraid of trolls," admits Vijayan. "Depending on my mood, I'm careful with my topics. I have seen many women being harassed and have hoped that such things do not happen to me; I have deleted a post once or twice because of this fear. I'm scared of being trolled, and I think I'm conscious about it. "

For her part, Nair doesn't mince words on her Twitter feed. She tweets about politics and the cultural issues of India, which attracts attention. "When trolls call me names, there is always an underlying message—that as a (wayward) Hindu, I can be 'reformed'."

Indeed, much of the problem comes from right-wing, Hindu, anti-feminist, and pro-Modi (the current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi) groups. Anything that is seen to be going against their creed, including comments about the prime minister, brings out the "Internet Hindu" mob in force. It is not surprising that trolling has escalated since the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party won the national elections in 2014. The BJP's relations with the media have been turbulent at best, with the prime minister even referring to some of the media as "baazaru log," which means people who can be bought or traded.

"They are all cowards," Nair continues. "They use different handles, which are often used by groups of people, usually RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing, Hindu, nationalist, volunteer paramilitary organization] supporters. With women, they're always talking about rape, vaginas, or orgasms. It's the only way they can get back at a woman."

May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day, a somber occasion for India. According to the Hoot, an organization that monitors press freedom and the media on the Indian subcontinent, there have been 22 assaults—including one death—on journalists between January and April 2016. The statistics are troubling, but for journalists, life and work must continue.

"Although I'm careful, when it happens to me I always fights back," Vijayan says. "What I have learned from my experience and that of others is to never give up. These trolls are basically spineless; they can't stand a courageous woman. The more you shy away, the more aggressive they become."