For the past three years, each cyber-harassment nightmare for Rana Ayyub has begun the same way, with one or several Hindu nationalist activists publishing false information about her or bringing a spurious complaint against her.
This time it was a complaint, known in India as a “First Information Report,” that was filed with the police in Ghaziabad, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, although Ayyub lives in Mumbai, more than 1,400 km to the south. It accuses her of fraud and was filed by Vikas Sankrityayan, a co-founder of “Hindu IT Cell,” an obscure group linked to the Hindu nationalist far-right, which supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The complaint claims that she misappropriated money she raised through the Indian crowd-funding platform Ketto in three campaigns in 2020 and 2021 for sectors of the population badly impacted by Covid-19. When contacted by RSF, Ayyub insisted that everything was above board and that she has herself reached out to the Central Board of Direct Taxes to demonstrate her good faith.
Similar modus operandi
But it makes no difference that the information or accusation is completely baseless. As in the past, it has sufficed to fire up the thousands of members of the Hindu nationalist right who orchestrate major campaigns of hate and intimidation against her.
In the third stage, as a result of the publication of her personal data, Ayyub is the target of physical threats and intimidation that put her in considerable danger. Only this time, the usual online and telephone threats are being accompanied, according to Ayyub, by physical pursuit and harassment, and direct verbal threats.
“We call on the authorities in New Delhi to urgently intervene to protect Rana Ayyub and to ensure that those orchestrating the hate campaigns against her are prosecuted,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The passivity of the Indian authorities with regard to the repeated attacks targeting this journalist is such that they will be held responsible for any physical violence against her. The nightmare to which she is being subjected must end.”
Repeated calls for her to be murdered
In June, Ayyub and two other journalists, Saba Naqvi and Mohammed Zubair, were absurdly accused by the Ghaziabad police of “criminal conspiracy” simply because all three tweeted about a video of an elderly man being beaten up by other men. The accusation was followed by many calls for them to be murdered.
In November 2019, RSF condemned the behaviour of the police in Amethi, another town in Uttar Pradesh, who threatened Ayyub with prosecution after she posted a tweet alluding to a 30-year-old dispute between Hindus and Muslims over a nearby religious site. The threat was accompanied by a shocking online hate campaign with calls for her to be killed.
As RSF reported at the time, an appalling social media hate campaign against Ayyub was triggered in April 2018 by a fake TV channel tweet falsely claiming that she had defended the perpetrators of the gang-rape of a child on the grounds that the authorities were using it to persecute Muslims. The campaign included sexist insults, deepfaked porn videos and some of the earliest instances of calls for her to be murdered.
In November 2018, RSF addressed an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to react to the violence of these kinds of campaigns against journalists in India. In response, four UN special rapporteurs and the UN working group on discrimination against women sent a joint letter to the Indian government the following month urging it to take action.
Last week, thousands of Indian journalists commemorated the fourth anniversary of the murder of Gauri Lankesh, a newspaper editor who was gunned down outside her home in Bangalore on 5 September 2017, probably by supporters of the Hindu nationalist far right. Her murder was preceded by an online campaign of threats against her. Although several suspects have been arrested, a trial keeps on being postponed
India is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.