When Kerala-based journalist Sindhu Sooryakumar moderated a news debate about Smriti Irani speaking against the celebration of Mahishasura Jayanti, an orchestrated effort of online trolling was perpetrated against her.
Just like Sindhu, numerous women journalists have been at the receiving end of vicious trolling that includes body shaming comments, threats of rape and even death threats.
At the Bengaluru Literature Festival organised at the Lalit Ashok on Saturday, a panel of women journalists moderated by veteran journalist Ammu Joseph spoke about the abuse they faced online and how they coped with the trauma.
“The online space is very much like real life, trolls which operate in vernacular language are not detected by Twitter because it does not understand the languages. It is a double-edged sword. Do you file a police complaint? Do you want to clamp down on free speech by banning trolls or find other ways to deal with it?” questioned journalist Laxmi Murthy.
The panel also touched upon possible solutions to tackle the problem of abusive trolls.
“There is no proper legal option to protect women from the abuses hurled by online trolls. After section 66(a) was repealed, there has been no mechanism to protect women from even rape threats. When you go to the police, they say that there is nothing much you can do since there is no proper legal framework. That’s what we need now. A legal framework to protect women from online abuse,” said Kerala-based journalist and Assistant Executive Editor of Asianet News, Sindhu S.
Sindhu who herself has been a victim of abusive online trolls spoke about the aftermath of her televised debate.
In January 2015, Sindhu moderated a panel discussion about BJP leader Smriti Irani’s speech against the celebration of Mahishasura Jayant.
“There are some Adivasi communities which celebrate Durgashtami as Mahishasura Jayanti. They do not worship goddess Durga. My point was simple, that everyone is entitled to follow their own customs and have their own beliefs. The very next day, an organised attack was launched against me by certain Hindutva groups that I called Goddess Durga a prostitute. Even today, I am famous as the one who called Durga Devi a prostitute,” Sindhu recalls.
After the news debate, Sindhu’s mobile phone and landline were flooded with calls where unidentified persons hurled abuses at her. The organised attack against her on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and even through phone calls put the seasoned journalist through trauma.
Sindhu changed her phone number, stopped riding her scooter.
“It completely cut me off from my personal and professional life. I used to hide behind my husband on the bike. I thought riding pillion would keep me safe. But I began fearing riding pillion too. My company car picked me up and dropped me back home. I was constantly aware of my surroundings. I was scared. But I could not let these trolls cow me into giving up what I did. I held on to my ideals and principles. I had to put on a brave front. But on the inside, I was scared. I came through. I did not back down. Not even when seven persons were arrested and some pro-Hindutva groups garlanded the accused outside the police station,” Sindhu adds.
Stating that her only way out was to mute those Twitter handles which trolls her and in cases where the abuses are extreme, she would file a complaint, Sindhu says, she has now developed a thick skin towards online trolls.
“I am not scared anymore. After a point you become numb and learn to ignore them,” she says.
Stating that no religion promotes abusing people, senior journalist Nidhi Razdan lashed out against the anonymous trolls.
“What religion tells you to threaten violence and perpetrate crimes against people for not agreeing with yours?” Nidhi said.
“I would suggest that anyone who comes under the fire of online abuse must file a complaint. Please report it. The legal process may be cumbersome but it is very important to report it. From time to time, call them out for their nonsense as they are very organised and targeted abusive and misogynistic. Call them out, filter out the ones who troll you but if there is a violent threat, do report it,” Nidhi adds.