World Press Freedom Day: The Dangers of Being a Muslim Journalist in India
For Muslim journalists in India, threats, FIRs and even mob violence for reporting have become a new normal.
A young 19-year-old Muslim friend from Karnataka who documents hate crimes against minorities in the state, is struggling to convince his parents to let him pursue a career in journalism. Paying no heed to his relentless persuasion, his parents feel that a career in journalism for him is too dangerous today.
While I admire my young friend's zeal and courage, there is substantial merit in his parents' worries. In the India of 2022, journalism is a really dangerous profession. Certainly, It is harder for journalists with a Muslim name writing on human rights and the growing episodic attacks on the Muslim community.
There is literally no rocket science in guessing how does it feel like being a Muslim reporter in India whose daily job is to trawl through daily footage of hate and violence against their community, who writes on hate offenders being ignored by the law and people languishing in Jail under draconian laws. So, it does not matter how much my friend tries to convince his parents, they remain unmoved.
Perhaps, his parents may be aware of journalist Siddique Kappan or Fahad Shah's brazenly unjust incarceration. Kappan, who was arrested on his way to cover the Hathras gangrape and murder case of a Dalit woman, has spent over 1.5 years in jail under the UAPA and a proper trial is yet to begin.
On the other hand, Fahad Shah had secured bail in two cases, but was slapped with the draconian Public Safety Act which can keep him in extrajudicial detention for a long time without a fair trial. This happened while Fahad was awaiting a hearing in the third case.
Threats, Violence and Online Auctions: The Toll They Take
Of late, threats, FIRs and even mob violence for reporting have become a new normal. Last month, a group of journalists, most of them Muslim, were attacked at a Mahapanchayat organised by Hindutva outfits right in the heart of the national capital for covering an event where open calls to violence against Muslims were made.
The mob reportedly grew hostile after the Muslim identity of the reporters was revealed. Later, a police case was filed against one of the victims as well.
At this point of time, sometimes a journalist cannot even afford a human error or a bad typo in their reports.
While physical attacks are scary, constant trolling, death threats and organised harassment campaigns have also become a new normal. Last year, Muslim women, many of them journalists, were put up on a mock 'auction' online at least twice by Hindutva supremacist alt-right groups to silence them.
All this is not happening in a vacuum and even if you somehow overcome all the attacks, the job of constantly trawling through unimaginable amounts of hate against your identity will always hurt.
On 13 April 2022, Times of India Journalist Akhlad Khan passed away. Akhlad was a friend too and a fellow reporter who meticulously covered hate crimes. Three days before his death, he had advised me to look after my mental health after I wrote a long rant against the cruel monotony of documenting violence against Muslims.
At 28, this was Akhlad's second heart attack. The prevalent hate around was choking him from the inside yet he kept warning others to beware of the impact of hate. Despite anxiety and health complications, It was something very personal to him. He did this work as a moral duty.
Like Akhlad and my young friend from Karnataka, most Muslim journalists are doing what they do for something more than just a byline. Muslim journalists do not have the privilege to divorce themselves from the anti-Muslim violence that many of them cover on a daily basis now.
They have offered their bodies to bear witnesses to violence directed at their existence. A part of their lively souls is bartered for the byline. One cannot just watch so much hate all the time - as a human being there are limits to how mechanically your eyes can watch your own humiliation. It's very overwhelming and after a point you feel extremely dejected and angry. But if you take a break, there is often very little backend support to verify and document these videos.
The work of these journalists constantly writing against anti-Muslim violence is a successful attempt to mainstream the conversation around Islamophobia in India. Be it arrests of men like Bajrang Muni or the Dharam Sansad hate mongers, we must acknowledge that it's because of the work of these young Muslim journalists and their allies, that the police was forced to do its job despite the mainstream media looking away or whitewashing the violence.
Often, it is only because of the efforts of this growing tribe of Muslim journalists and their allies that anti-Muslim propaganda gets exposed and the violence does not go unchallenged.
Despite this, they are often told to ignore these acts of violence because in a way, some well meaning people think that these stories help the BJP and the right wing spread their message. They feel that Muslims must remain silent to fulfill larger interests. The reportage has outrightly refused to treat Muslim victims as a collateral to the sinking economy or rising fuel prices.
Those who called these acts of violence as fringe acts have been silenced with facts. The constant reportage on hate has punctured this ‘ignore the fringe’ argument. It has been conclusively established, report after report, that this violence is mainstream and worrisome. Young Muslim journalists and their allies are not worried about whether talking about these videos is helping the far-right wing or not. Their job as journalists is to write the truth.
We Cannot Afford to Lose More Akhlads
My young friend from Karnataka also knows the threats and benefits associated with this work. Until some months ago, with just 2 followers on his social media, he was messaging journalists across India to draw more attention to the growing Islamophobia in Karnataka. This was before the anti-Hijab and Halal row in Karnataka.
One day, I eventually had a long conversation with him and then calls and messages became frequent. It is a cruel realisation that perhaps he would not be doing what he is doing, had others been as passionate and serious about hate crimes in Karnataka. My young friend is an idealist as people of his age must be.
What makes him so passionate about covering this violence and bringing out the truth is how extremely personal is the loss of friendships and belonging in this country to young Muslims like him. We have hardly anything in common except the fact that we want the world to acknowledge and call out the alarming anti-Muslim hatred and violence in India.
We have to discuss structural reforms in the alternative media in India to make this field a better place for Muslims who are ready to put their lives on the line to write stories that will inform the history of our times.
We cannot afford to lose more Akhlads. We cannot afford to tell young bright people that truth-telling is criminal and they should not do it. More than anything, we need to hold on to each other and share what remains of our belonging to an increasingly alienating homeland.
(Alishan Jafri is a journalist based in New Delhi. He is associated with The Wire's Heartland Hatewatch project. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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