When the State attacks: Journalists under fire

On the 8th of April, journalist Rana Ayyub gave the keynote speech at the International Journalism festival in Italy. She was in conversation with Julie Posetti, director of Research at ICFJ and she spoke about majoritarianism, Hindu fundamentalism and the attack on independent journalism in India. Edited excepts from her keynote address:

To get here, to this venue, and to Italy, I had no idea that I would be detained at the airport. I had to go to the Delhi High Court to get permission to fly out of the country as if I was some kind of fugitive. And then when I reached the airport for the second time, I was detained again despite a court order, and I was made to sit. A lot of Indians are familiar with me and my work, so they were taking pictures saying, “Oh! She’s stopped again” because I was on the front page of all newspapers.

I am a Global Opinions Writer at the Washington Post. I am a journalist who happens to be a Muslim, who was born with a Polio in the left hand and the right leg. So, I was a cripple and I was miraculously cured. When I was 9, anti-Muslim riots broke out in Bombay. I was 9 and my sister was 15. A mob was getting to our house and we were saved in the nick of a time by a Sikh gentleman. That’s the first time, when I was 9, that I heard the word ‘refugee’ and a ‘Muslim’ being used explicitly for me. I had been made aware of my religious identity at a very early stage in my life. 10 years later I was in Gujarat, which was then presided over then by the present Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He was then the Chief Minister when a thousand Muslims were butchered in 3 days under his watch.

I went there as a relief worker. I was only 19 and that’s when I decided I had to do something because I had to stop feeling helpless. When you were a child with a handicap, there’s so much sympathy that comes your way. I wanted to get rid of that sympathy and I wanted to speak my truth and that of the people in the country who had witnessed injustices for decades and that’s the reason why I got into journalism.

After a couple of initial gigs on television, I joined this publication called Tehelka, where my investigation sent the Home Minister of the state behind bars for extra-judicial murder of Muslims; that man now happens to be the second most important man in India. His name is Amit Shah, he is the Home Minister of the country.

So, after I did the investigation, I went undercover! I went undercover as this Hindu-American girl with a fake name, a fake identity and a fake American accent, with 8 cameras on my body. This was in 2010. I infiltrated the rank and file of the state government. For 8 months, I did a sting operation on all the top guys in the administration, where they spoke the truth about the genocide of the Muslims and the extrajudicial murder of Muslims. When I came back to my organization, they refused to publish the story citing political pressure. I was just 26 then.

It was a lot for a journalist to take, to put her in jeopardy, and for her investigation to not be published. I went through a lot including a nervous breakdown and that’s when I started seeing a psychiatrist. I went to every journalism organization back in the day and they refused to publish and then I went to publishers saying can you try to publish the transcript of the tape of my sting operation; and they said, “It’s too risky a book!”

So, Mom had some gold kept for me, like back in India it’s a tradition that when you are about to get married, the family gives gold. So, she had kept some gold for my marriage. So, I pawned the gold, took a gold loan, and self-published my book which was called Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up. There was no media coverage but social media, which too has been weaponized against us, has also democratized the space for us to speak. It became a great platform for my book to be an international bestseller; selling 750,000 copies in 14 languages. But, the courts in India have still not taken or asked me for my tapes for investigation.

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