After story on bare-chested girls paraded at temple, The Covai Post editors get threats

The two editors, both women, have said that they will not take down the story, bullying won't win.
After story on bare-chested girls paraded at temple, The Covai Post editors get threats
After story on bare-chested girls paraded at temple, The Covai Post editors get threats
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As a journalist who has been in the industry for two decades now, it wasn’t uncommon for Vidyashree Dharmaraj to see comments of a few offended people on her news portal’s Facebook page.

Vidyashree is the editor-in-chief of The Covai Post, an online news portal which broke the story on Sunday about seven girls who had not attained puberty being paraded bare-chested at a temple festival in Vellalur, Madurai.

This procession is part of a yearly practice that involves the minors being 'offered' to the Yezhaikatha Amman temple for a fortnight. 60 villages take part in this festival, reported Meyammai, The Covai Post’s executive editor.

The comments on their Facebook page, which started on Monday, questioned Meyammai about her story. But soon they turned into something more sinister. Now, Vidyashree tells TNM, her phone has not stopped buzzing with calls and WhatsApp messages full of dire threats.

“The initial comments were along the lines of ‘what the hell do you know about our festival?’ and ‘who did you get money from?’ There were 10-12 comments, all in Tamil, but not very abusive,” Vidyashree tells TNM.

Meanwhile, Meyammai also started getting a lot of friend requests on Facebook. “I changed my privacy settings in time so they were not able to see much on my profile. But I started getting messages from Facebook about a number of unknown people wanting to connect with me. So, I deactivated my account,” she says.

Things took a turn for the worse when Vidyashree started getting threatening messages on her phone on Monday, around 7pm. “The first message I received on WhatsApp was a screenshot was of the office address, my name and my number. After that I got a couple of messages saying that now I would have to face a lot,” Vidyashree says.

She continued to receive similar WhatsApp messages that night. Not all of them were threatening, but most were. “These people are very smart. They use the internet to make calls and send these messages so that their numbers cannot be traced. I could tell they were using VoIP because instead of the sender’s 10 digit number, this has 12 digits,” Vidyashree says.

VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol is a technology which allows one to deliver voice communications via the internet.

The calls started around 10pm. “They were talking nicely initially, saying that we shouldn’t have covered the ritual the way we did. I tried to engage with a few of them, the ones that seemed to be from mobile numbers. But I missed a lot of them. The calls went on through the night. At some point I got bugged and switched off my phone,” Vidyashree narrates. Till the time her phone was on, she had received 50-55 calls.

Many other calls came to the office number. “If it comes to the office number, they usually hand over the phone to me unless they know who it is. When the callers refused to identify themselves, they started threatening saying, ‘andha pombala ku kuddaku poriya?’,” she says. It translates from Tamil to, “Will you give the phone to that woman or not?”

“Other callers left threatening messages like, ‘what the hell does she know about our customs?’, ‘we will finish her’ and ‘ask her to be careful’,” Vidyashree adds.

The callers continued to bombard her personal number through Tuesday, prompting her to file a complaint with the Cyber-crime cell in Coimbatore city and also with the Madurai DIG. However, Vidyashree is skeptical about how much that will help seeing that all the messages and calls come via the internet, making them difficult to track.

“There were also several attempts to hack our website,” Vidyashree shares, “We received threats saying that our site will be shut down unless we take down the story.”

With over 60 messages on WhatsApp, many of which are just voice messages, and 200 calls, the experience has left Vidyashree’s family very worried about her. “It’s not something that we haven’t seen before. But the intensity is somewhat overwhelming. We are also a startup, and don’t have a big name behind us. This probably emboldened the miscreants into thinking that they can bully us,” Vidyashree observes.

But there is no question of taking down the story, Meyammai says. “I was there, and I reported what I saw. It is a sensitive issue for it concerns religion and culture, but there is nothing untrue in what we have reported. It is all factual. We haven’t said that the children are being sexually abused, but we just do not want them to be exploited in any manner. The scope for that in such a setting has to be acknowledged,” she asserts.

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