With increasing attacks on journalists, today India ranks at 140 out of 180 countries on World Press Freedom Index. In January 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a notice to the Indian government to express its concern about the detention of journalists.
The International Press Freedom Award is meant to honour “courageous journalists from around the world”. This year it was awarded to Indian Journalist, Neha Dixit
“In 2019, Dixit spent months investigating and reporting stories that shed light on important issues in the country, including extrajudicial killings by police. She also reported on the illegal detention of citizens under draconian laws that appeared to be motivated by political interests,” the CPJ has said about Dixit.
In a conversation with The Woke Journal, Neha opens up on online trolls, press freedom in the country and increasing attack against journalists.
When did you decide to pursue journalism as a career? What had influenced you?
There was no particular influence. I grew up in Lucknow where everybody only knew about engineering and medical, teaching and stuff. Particularly, my family had no clue about journalism. I didn’t want to do any of those things that they wanted me to do.
So I came to Delhi to study literature from Delhi University. That’s where I got to know about journalism. When I started studying literature, I also started reading newspapers and magazines. And I got interested in connecting the political, the personal. That is how I got into it.
Do you think Indian media is succumbing to an intolerant establishment? What is the one thing you would wish to change with regard to Indian media?The problem is that the Indian mainstream media is heavily corporatised now. Which is why, the marketing team decides what to report and who your target group is, instead of what actually needs to be reported. Because of the corporatisation, there is a corporate-political nexus. So political parties also gets to decide and create some kind of censorship within different newsrooms.
And that leads to the killing of the stories from marginalised class and castes. Because the marketing team does not think that, it is profitable. This means that most of the population of the country is excluded from mainstream news.
So there is corporate and political influence. And I think that there has to be a cap on investment, the percentage of investment that the corporate can do in media houses.
What has changed for you personally, as a journalist working in Modi India?
All journalists, whether it is now or before, always received legal notices for the stories that they would do. So, before the NDA-2 regime, I did receive some legal notices for some stories that I did. What has changed now, I think there are two things. One is that apart from legal notices, there are serious criminal charges that are filed against journalists.
Not just for me, but for many other journalists in different remote pockets of the country. So, it is not just defamation that is filed against them, but also serious criminal charges. That is a new thing.
And also the fact that it creates a sort of self-censorship within the journalist so that they do not report on things that the government disagrees with, or is critical of the government, which any journalist should be. By filing these cases, thus they make them impose some self-censorship.
So next time they report on the same subject whether it is about right-wing fundamentalism, or caste, or class, or gender; you think of the consequences before filing the story because of the case, because of the experiences before. That is the difference.
And of course, there had also been murder attempts, in the last five years we have seen many attacks on the journalist.
We are also witnessing how the mainstream media houses have buckled down and not stood up to the government because of this fear. So, our media certainly has become very weak.
At times when I see the online hatred, I think it requires courage more than anything to pursue journalism. How do you deal with online trolls and abuse on a daily basis?I have to say that online trolling is a reflection of what happens in the offline world. So if I did a story on RSS targeting children there were physical threats against me when I was on the field.
So I was physically threatened by RSS members while reporting the story. And when I said, I’m going to call the police, they said that the police is also our acquaintance. They enjoy that kind of impunity in the offline world. Thus you get similar reactions online.
Similarly, in the U.P encounter story, I received all kinds of threats from a cop. After the story was published, the same thing reflected online.
Another thing I want to say is that online trolling is not just about me. Lots of people are facing it. The point is that, when I reported on encounters, people started talking about how I am trolled instead of talking about the story that had invited the trolling.
That is also a big problem. So when you write about the marginalised sections of the society or if you are critical of Brahmanism and if you are critical about atrocities on Dalits and minorities, and if this is in opposition to the government’s ideology, then it is reflected in the online trolling and offline attacks.
What is the biggest challenge that you are facing as a journalist?The biggest challenge for any journalist right now is to get a story out. To get a ground report or an investigative story out. Honestly, there are only a few platforms that are ready to put out investigative stories, and the ones that are there don’t have the money or resources to support it.
What do you think online journalism is doing to the Indian media landscape?See, there are only a very few online places, that are taking on the role of doing honest journalism, and are showing the courage to put out stuff.
I would also say that online journalism has in a way democratised this space. Because earlier only the big corporate media houses had the resources to put out stuff in the public domain.
But the online portals and media have created that space for even the most marginalised person to be able to put the information out in the public that he or she or anyone in the community are facing some kind of atrocities, in the form of a video or in the form of a message or a post. That way, I think online media has democratised this space.
P. Sainath once said media today is owned by big corporate houses, who are interested in producing stenographers and not journalists. In such a time, how does one preserve the sanctity of journalism?There are two ways. Like I said there has to be a cap on the corporate-political nexus in the media. So that a journalist can go to the field and honestly investigate a story and put it in the public domain.
We also need journalists to come together and have more solidarity and more diversity in terms of gender class and caste. So that people from every section are not just covered but they get to tell their own stories.
What advice do you have to give young journalists? What is the one thing that you didn’t know when you began your career and knows now?When I started working as a journalist a lot of people would say that if you do not have contacts in journalism, or if you are not part of the right circles, and if you don’t hang out enough, then you can’t do your work.
But what I have learned now is if you keep doing your story without paying attention to these, then you learn how to do your work in the best manner possible. You don’t need to have any kind of contacts to back you up. You can just do your work and that’s enough. Work speaks for itself.
What does this award mean to you?
This award is special. It is important. I hope that this will help me fight my cases in court. There are two cases that I am fighting without any support from ‘Outlook’– the organisation that published my story on which the cases were filed. And this seems to be a pattern.
I hope this award would put to spotlight the media organisations that do not support the journalists, once the story is published. I also hope this award will also bring attention to the world’s largest democracy where so many journalists are being harassed with legal cases, physical attacks, online attacks. In that way, it is special to me for I can put these issues on the table.