Indian government must end intimidation campaigns against columnist, RSF says
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns an Indian government agency’s decision to freeze the bank accounts of Rana Ayyub, an outspoken journalist who was been subjected to waves of judicial, digital and physical harassment in the past. The decision to freeze her assets is completely arbitrary and must be rescinded at once, RSF says.
Rana Ayyub, with whom RSF spoke today, is holed up in her Mumbai home because she is now also being subjected to a new online harassment campaign and all-out digital lynching on pro-government media sites. Worse still, the address of her Mumbai apartment is circulating on social media with the result that she fears for her physical safety if she goes out.
The spark that started this latest conflagration was yesterday’s announcement by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), a government agency responsible for combatting economic crimes, that it was freezing her bank accounts in response to an August 2021 complaint by Vikas Sankrityayan, a co-founder of “Hindu IT Cell,” an obscure group linked to the Hindu nationalist far-right that supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The arbitrary nature of last year’s police decision to investigate Ayyub on suspicion of fraud was condemned by RSF at the time. After she responded to all the summonses for questioning and provided all the documents requested, the ED’s Mumbai Zonal Office finally closed the investigation on 7 February.
But the ED management meanwhile asked another branch, the Delhi Zonal-II Office, to pursue the investigation and re-interrogate Ayyub, who is a Washington Post columnist. Significantly, whereas the original investigation focused on claims that Ayyub misused funds she had raised for Covid-19 victims, the latest ED interrogation was mainly about her journalism, as she pointed out in a statement released today.
“Let’s not be fooled,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “It’s clear that the Indian government, through the Enforcement Directorate, is manipulating the justice system to achieve the goal it has been pursuing for several years – to silence an annoying journalist once and for all. We call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office to put an immediate end to this crude intimidation campaign against Rana Ayyub, which has gone on for too long. The rule of law in India has been sadly trampled on in this case and its credibility is now at stake.”
Increasingly violent methods
Ayyub has often been the target of harassment campaigns that use increasingly violent methods. First, false information is circulated and far-right Hindu nationalist activists file complaints. Then police and judicial investigations are initiated with the aim intimidating Ayyub. And finally, vast online hate campaigns are orchestrated along with calls for her to be murdered and the publication of her personal data.
To combat these campaigns, RSF has repeatedly urged the Indian authorities at both federal and state levels to guarantee her safety. In November 2018, RSF also addressed an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
In an overlapping development yesterday, the same day as the decision to freeze Ayyub’s assets, the Mumbai police arrested an individual who had openly threatened to murder her if she continued working as a journalist. It is indicative of the political nature of the harassment of Ayyub that the Mumbai police are overseen by the Maharashtra state government, which is controlled by a coalition opposed to the federal government.
India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.