The internet's melting pot of right wing nationalism and misogyny has made female journalists particularly susceptible to online abuse, real world harassment, and even death.
Another female journalist has been killed - this time in India.
Gauri Lankesh, editor and publisher of a weekly paper in the Kannada language, was shot seven times by three unknown assailants as she was unlocking the front door to her home on September 5, 2017.
Lankesh had spent her career fiercely attacking right-wing divisiveness in India, deeply entrenched caste, class and gender hierarchies, and, more recently, the Hindutva agenda pursued by the current government and its ideological affiliates.
While India has seen 41 murders of journalists since 1992, Lankesh’s assassination points to a new set of dangerous phenomena.
Firstly, it highlights the increasing state of lawlessness being nurtured in India today, nurtured by elected guardians of the state who choose not to investigate, apprehend, or punish the hordes of vigilantes who style themselves “cow protectors”, “love jihad” preventers, or simply “Hindu Youth brigades”.
Second, Gauri Lankesh joins a steadily growing line of dissident rationalist voices to have been murdered in cold blood since the right-wing BJP attained national prominence under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2013-2014.
Third, is the fact that we can no longer ignore the specifically gendered vulnerabilities of women who choose to speak truth to power in public.
Gauri Lankesh was a minority voice on the fringes of a mainstream media that has largely relinquished its role as the interrogator of power. But even celebrity female journalists visible on daily television shows and English-language op-ed columns share a gendered vulnerability with Lankesh.
What has become clear over the last few years is that while India’s press freedoms are steadily being attacked, it is outspoken women who are bearing the brunt of the mass vitriol.
In the days after Lankesh’s killing, vicious reactionary trolls tweeted celebratory messages justifying and celebrating her death. Abusive Twitter feeds referenced the slain journalist as a “b***h”, and much furore was generated when it came to light that Prime Minister Modi followed some of these feeds.
One Facebook user even made a public call to assassinate other outspoken women journalists and activists such as Sagarika Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Kavitha Krishnan, Shehla Rashid, and Shobha De for the “damage these so called journos have caused our nation.”
Such ire is identical with that of hundreds of right-wing, online macho-nationalists, who have become a toxic presence on social media sites. Often identifying themselves as “Modi bhakts” or devotees of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these trolls circulate and recycle threatening or defamatory tweets and WhatsApp messages to target critics of the government.
While Donald Trump and Modi are the most followed leaders in the world on social media, the Modi and Vladimir Putin governments have allegedly sponsored “armies’” of internet trolls to spread vicious propaganda against their enemies.
In Modi’s case, this troll army, be it official or unofficial, comprises some of the most misogynist individuals yet to claim a public voice. As journalist Swati Chaturvedi details in her latest book, I am Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army, women journalists who question the central government’s policies are subjected to graphic and violent hate speech and threats of sexual assault.
The trolling foot soldiers demonstrate that, in their universe, women’s voices and bodies are only identifiable on the terrain of sex, and that any praise or criticism of female bodies and voices must be sexualised. Thus, the weapons of intimidation on online platforms include insinuations of sexual deviance, accusations of commercial sex work, and threats of sexual violation.
From discussions of a woman’s alleged affairs to descriptions of her genitalia, from threats of acid attacks to rape, these online weapons draw on deep moral anxieties about female sexuality on the one hand, and rely on masculinist ideas of patriotism on the other.
In a global environment where the leader of the so-called free world, Donald Trump, refers to “nasty” women in deeply misogynist terms that reference inchoate fears of menstruation and moistness, it is hardly surprising that our collective hatred of women is emboldened in social media.
Key to understand, however, is that this spectrum of gendered verbal violence can and does easily spill into the offline world where women’s bodies are physically endangered.
Rationalist, secular, and liberal female voices in India are branded “presstitutes” and “sickular anti-nationals.” Their phone numbers are circulated on social media platforms, and, if online and telephonic harassment is not enough, women are hounded outside their homes and workplaces, pinched and shoved in courthouses and press conferences, or, sometimes, even gunned down.
I remember when on a Sunday in October 2006, I pasted a cutting from the front page of a local Mumbai newspaper onto my laptop. The remarkable and fearless Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, had been shot dead by assassins in the elevator of her apartment block in Moscow. Her image seemed to burn through the cheap newsprint I had cut out. She had been a relentless critic of Vladimir Putin.
Be it Lankesh’s India, Politkovskaya’s Russia, or even Megyn Kelly’s USA, we live in world of hyper masculine leaders with a great hunger for mass devotion, (c)overt fantasies of totalitarian control, and an obsessive and shrewd interest in social media.
Rather than hierarchizing the offline vs. the online, the verbal vs. the textual, the wound on the skin vs. the wound on the mind, we must treat all gendered onslaughts on press freedoms as part of a socio-political continuum which is fundamentally tied to the cultivation of mass nationalist and misogynist hysteria by right-wing regimes across the world.