"I am proud of the fact that the government is scared of me and my words because somewhere it is impacting them, my truth is impacting them. I’m glad," says Rana Ayyub at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia today (8 April 2022).
Ayyub is the global opinions writer at The Washington Post, a Muslim Indian woman, and one of the fiercest critics of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads a Hindu nationalist government.
She sold personal possessions to independently publish her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a cover up, back in 2016. The result of an eight-month sting exposing the genocide of Muslims, it captures accounts whilst working undercover from within the Modi administration.
She published it herself because no editor wanted to publish the story due to political pressure.
Since then, she works freelance because she cannot get a job within the country. Her journalism has meant that friends do not want to meet with her in public and her family members stand accused of aiding and abetting her in money laundering.
And this week, Ayyub was detained at Mumbai airport on her way to speak at Perugia. She had to go to the New Dehli Supreme Court to get permission to leave the country. Even after court had cleared her to leave, she was detained a second time before she managed finally to leave India. She says that these arrests were an attempt to prohibit her from sharing her truth with the journalism community.
I was stopped today at the Indian immigration while I was about to board my flight to London to deliver my speech on the intimidation of journalists with @ICFJ . I was to travel to Italy right after to deliver the keynote address at the @journalismfest on the Indian democracy— Rana Ayyub (@RanaAyyub) March 29, 2022
"I don't know what will happen when I go back," says Ayyub. She accepts that there will be consequences when she gets back to India, fearing that she will be arrested.
But staying silent is not an option, not when everyday Muslim women face similar persecution, like when Hindu priests call for a crowd to rape and abduct Muslim women.
"I don’t have the luxury of taking a step back, of staying silent, because my country and my people need me. And there are so many of them who have placed their absolute trust and faith in me and I cannot betray their faith.
"I get letters that people have named their daughters after me. How do I betray that faith? I can’t."
Ayyub describes the recent detainment she was subjected to as humiliating and trivialising. But sadly, abuse and harassment has become normal for her over the years. The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) has documented the onslaught of abuse aimed at Ayyub since 2019, wading through a staggering 8.5m tweets aimed at her.
"I can tell you from being immersed in this data, it is traumatising to even be a bystander," says Julie Posetti, global director of research at ICFJ, speaking in Perugia.
"That needs to be appreciated in the context of really significant psychological injury and the ways in which the internet has been weaponised to make a pariah of a journalist in a country the size of India and in a democracy that is teetering."
For #IWD, we’re spotlighting the shocking #onlineviolence campaign against Indian journalist @RanaAyyub, which our research team’s studying with @SheffieldUni computer scientists. Since 2019, we’ve collected & analyzed 8.5million tweets directed @ the @washingtonpost columnist pic.twitter.com/wZ20XhWNFJ— International Center for Journalists (@ICFJ) March 8, 2022
Ayyub has faced death threats amid money-laundering accusations this year. She says that because of the sheer volume of abuse and trauma she even has to switch her phone off in order to get the peace to do simple things like take a shower or brush her teeth. It has made it impossible to enjoy family events, because of the bombardment of abuse and attention towards Ayyub on social media.
Propagandist media companies had been brought in as a part of the "hit job" to stalk her outside her house for three days. The reporters who knocked on the door did not even recognise her when she answered.
"So many of us who speak truth to power do not just have to face a physical problem, a physical death threat, but [also] the mental agony that no-one talks about."
It’s really powerful to hear about the vulnerabilities faced by #PressFreedom defenders like @RanaAyyub “I wanted to die two weeks ago, I am human, I am not a superhero, I do too break down, and I want people to know that”. pic.twitter.com/ACFbMemMKT— Antonio Zappulla OMRI (@antozappulla) April 8, 2022
Though her fate remains in the balance when she returns to India, she will keep battling the cases against her. If one thing seems to keep her going, it is the Muslim Indians who depend on her reporting. That, and the support coming from the international journalism community.
"Over my persecution, no political party in India has stood up in solidarity with me and I take it as a badge of honour that no political party can ever, ever say that I reported in their favour
"There is an unpopular truth that each one of us must speak, and I am here to speak that truth."
Free daily newsletter
- Farrah Storr of Substack's insider tips on the newsletter platform
- Hollie Wong of GAY TIMES, on community building and resilience on social media
- Five questions for every newsroom to ask themselves on World Press Freedom Day
- Tip: An email template to ask readers for their support on World Press Freedom Day
- Leadership lessons from Perugia: Leading during uncertainty (part 2)