Risks and joys too in the profession, say women scribes at event to celebrate Neelabh Mishra’s life and work

They were speaking at a public dialogue organized on the eve of the third death anniversary of Neelabh Mishra, former Editor-in-Chief of National Herald

Photo Courtesy: Facebook/ Kavita Srivastava
Photo Courtesy: Facebook/ Kavita Srivastava

Rukmini Sen

A public dialogue on the subject ‘Women Journalists Reporting Difficult Times’ was organized to celebrate the life and work of Neelabh Mishra, former Editor-in-Chief of National Herald at India International Centre on Tuesday on the eve of his third death anniversary.

The speakers on the occasion included independent journalist Neha Dixit, Ismat Ara from The Wire, Khabar Lahariya’s Kavita Bundelkhandi and Navkiran Natt, one of the persons behind the launch of Trolley Times, which reports about the ongoing farmers’ protests. They were in conversation with writer Farah Naqvi.

The evening began with Prof Apoorvanand welcoming the guests and asserting that the most important thing in journalism was field reporting. He remarked that corporate-run channels had almost done away with reporting and replaced it with endless studio discussions, which was the reason for the sorry state of journalism today.

Farah Naqvi started the evening saying that some people may wonder, "Why are all the panellists women?" She continued, "Then we will ask –why not?"

Kavita Bundelkhandi, Editor-in-Chief of Khabar Lahariya, a rural feminist digital network, spoke about her experience during the post pandemic lock down. She narrated how she tagged the administration and politicians of her area with news reports on unavailability of food, groceries and medicines, which did have some impact.

Kavita then narrated a tale of a woman ‘dacoit’. This alleged dacoit’s pictures and stories appearing in various local newspapers made Kavita wonder if a legend was in the making. Kavita said she initially ignored the reports as a superfluous crime story. However, gradually she decided that as a feminist news network, it was worth checking out the veracity of the story.

Kavita travelled through thick forests to reach the alleged dacoit's house. She found that the so-called dacoit’s mother, surprisingly, was scared to meet her. Her investigation revealed that the photographs being published by various local newspapers were fake. The girl was even younger than what was reported.

Kavita concluded that her report threw light on the scale of social harassment a young woman can face and how fake stories are planted against women not just in the neighbourhood but even through media houses.

Neha Dixit, an independent journalist, pointed out that it was tough to report without a press identity card. While various international newspapers give her assignments, she doesn't have the support of an organization or even an identity card.

She spoke about a trafficking story where young girls from Assam were taken away from their families to join the cadre of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). She was made to wait for hours at the Saraswati Shishu Mandir where she found the little girls. The gate of the school was locked. After a long discussion she was allowed to leave with the remark that, "You are a Brahmin woman. You won't do anything wrong."

Neha asserted that a lot of journalism today is happening in echo chambers. “People are full of opinions. Everyone has one. We can't inform people with opinions. The only way of breaking the binary is with ground reporting, by showing facts and the complexity of any situation as it exists,” she said.

Navkiran Natt is not a journalist, or so she claims. Her Instagram profile says she is a feminist, Marxist, dentist and is engaged in film studies right now. Navkiran started the Trolley Times with her friends three months back. She mentioned that unlike everyone else in the panel, she had never reported in the past. She was however, part of the farmers’ protest against the three farm laws from day one.

She confessed that it was after seeing the state of corporate-run media houses across the country that she and her friends decided to launch Trolley Times. They settled with a newspaper and decided not confine themselves to digital media. After all, their target readers were rural folks.

Navkiran asserted that news has to be in the local language. Trolley Times is published in Punjabi and Hindi. The Punjabi edition focuses on news about the farmers of Uttar Pradesh while the Hindi edition gives news of the Punjabi farmers.

She said there was a need for a newspaper like Trolley Times because the protest against the three farm bills is an organic protest; it’s led by some senior and elderly farmers but there is no one leader as such. "It was vital that we kept the communication clear. That everyone knew exactly what the other was saying. Trolley Times was meant to fill this gap,” she said.

Ismat Ara was a student in Jamia Millia when the riots broke out in 2020. Quite like Navkiran, she realised that the corporate-run media was a propaganda machine, and was not telling the truth of Shaheen Bagh or the Delhi riots. The only way to tell the story as she saw it was by reporting herself.

Like Neha, Ismat didn't have the security of a press card. However, she stepped out and reported from literally the epicentre of the Delhi riots. She confessed that she was clueless about risk assessment and was once followed by a mob when they realised she could be a Muslim. All she could do was to hide her college student identity card deep inside her bag.

Ismat recalled that on a visit to Hathras, she had requested for drinking water from a house. The hostess, after offering her water in a tumbler, asked her if she was a Brahman. She had already had the water so she avoided any further communication, she recounted.

At this point, Kavita remarked that this kind of treatment wasn't reserved only for Muslims. In rural areas, people speculated about her caste too, and as a Dalit woman, she had also faced ill treatment, she said.

Both Kavita and Ismat confessed that they often get rape threats. Ismat added that she was deeply uncomfortable when she realised that trolls were threatening her younger sister as well. "Ismat Ara, I see the name, and I know the game" was a common comment posted on her social networking wall by trolls, she said.

When Neha was asked about the threats she had received, she calmly narrated some horrific and graphic ones. She said she has been receiving calls from unknown numbers over a year. The caller always knows where she is and if her partner is away. A few days ago someone even tried to physically barge into her house.

When she reported this to the authorities, the police told her she was just imagining it all. A magistrate told her that she just needed to change her mobile number.

Farah Naqvi pointed out that in any civilized society, risk to life and well-being would be a matter of grave concern. However, it speaks of the times we live in that we are beginning to normalise such violations.

Navkiran responded to the same question by saying she was quite new to journalism to face such threats. However, right wing websites like OpIndia have written on her, she said.

All the women journalists were concerned that rape threats were so common that now they don't even pay much heed to them. Normalizing of such threats speaks of where we stand as a society today.

Kavita asserted that both female and male journalists struggle while reporting. Women journalists don't just face problems all the time. She has fun responding to some trolls, she said. Women journalists enjoy their work. That’s why they are there, she quipped.

Ismat added that she recently interviewed BJP leader Kapil Sharma. That she could question him on Delhi riots after a year is what she considered the joys of being a journalist.

Neha pointed out that SP leader Akhilesh Yadav had once pointed out that she wasn't as simple and harmless as she had seemed at first glance. That was a good compliment for a journalist, she said.

Navkiran added that she felt euphoric when an old Punjabi woman gave a copy of Trolley Times to a guest visitor at Singhu and requested her to read it for her.

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Published: 25 Feb 2021, 6:35 PM