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Online harassment spurs outrage among journalists; tougher regulations need of the hour

journalists in India have been subjected to online harassment and trolling. After the Pegasus snooping scandal revealed how the spyware was used to snoop on journalists

By Ajai Narendran
New Update

Online harassment

Of late, journalists in India have been subjected to online harassment and trolling. After the Pegasus snooping scandal revealed how the spyware was used to snoop on journalists, the rising instances of online harassment have caused outrage amongst journalists in India.

A Senior Journalist in India working with a Hindi television channel in Noida was subjected to massive trolling in early 2020. "After my number was leaked, I started receiving at least 100 calls a day and then they would flood me with hate messages on WhatsApp and Twitter. Two years have passed since the incident, but the harassment continues. I had approached both the Noida and the Delhi cyber police, but there was a timid response. I desist from raising my voice openly, out of fear of further harassment," said the journalist on condition of anonymity.

Arfa Khanum Sherwani, Senior Editor of The Wire speaks to The Probe on online harassment

Arfa Khanum Sherwani, Senior Editor with The Wire, who was a victim of such online harassment from the Tek Fog network, had received thousands of abusive messages between January 1, 2021 to May 31, 2021. According to an expose by The Wire, Tek fog is a software application used allegedly by the BJP to infiltrate social media platforms of perceived opponents.

Speaking to The Probe, Arfa Khanum said: "When you are commenting on the politics and the policies of the government which doesn't like to be questioned, you get targeted. In general, we have a media ecosphere that is more pliant and subordinated. There are very few journalists today who are asking questions to the party in power, and it is unfortunate that these journalists are being portrayed like enemies of the state. Incidentally, if you are also a woman and you are coming from an unpopular religious identity, then you are not just branded as anti-Modi, but you are also branded as anti-India and anti-Hindu."

Khanum continues to face regular abusive tweets on Twitter. "Aisa kar Harpic se aankh dhoya kar aur clarity aa jayegi" (wash your eyes with harpic, you will be able to see clearly), "Namakharami koi aapse seekhe" (One must learn treacherousness from you) - These are just few of the many messages that can be seen on Khanum's Twitter wall. So, is Twitter clamping down on such online trolls?

"I keep complaining to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and I keep writing emails to them. Sometimes, Twitter acts, and they disable the account, but mostly they don't do anything. Many people just tell us to keep blocking the trolls, but believe me, if I start blocking, I will end up only doing that the whole day. Should I stop working and give all my time to these trolls, both sponsored and non-sponsored?" asks Arfa.

J Gopikrishnan, another senior journalist with The Pioneer whose name figured in the Pegasus snooping scandal, noted that he doesn't shy away from giving back as good as he gets to trolls. "Mostly, I ignore them, but I respond to them very strongly when it goes out of hand. I have complained to Twitter, and I have been able to get four accounts suspended, but Twitter needs to do much more. Sometimes they give an automated reply; at times, they act, but they don't care at most times.”

While the Tek Fog investigation throws light on the involvement of political parties in harassing their opponents, Gopikrishnan says there are corporate lobbies as well that unleash attacks on journalists. "Some time ago, I found that I was being continuously trolled with hate messages. Through some amount of effort, I managed to track the exact person who was sending me these messages, and I was shocked to find that the messages were being sent from a 2G scam accused person's company. The corporate house had used the mobile phone of their PR official to send hate messages to me."

Gopikrishnan says that journalists are also sometimes part of the problem as they do not come forward to fight the troll armies. "Why talk about just trolling? I got to know from the international media and Indian media reports that my number figured in the target list of the Pegasus phone tapping case. When the Supreme Court formed the committee to probe the phone tapping scandal, I learnt that I was the first to submit my phone for the SC monitored probe panel. I was surprised to learn that many journalists refused to hand over their phones. How can a probe be conducted and justice be served if journalists don't cooperate?"

The Editors Guild of India had recently condemned the continuing online harassment of women journalists in India, which included targeted and organised online trolling as well as threats of sexual abuse. The Guild stated: "What is further disturbing is that most of these attacks are targeted at journalists who have been outspokenly critical of the current government and the ruling party, in an effort to silence them under the intimidation of such attacks. This is a travesty of all democratic norms and in violation of the law."

The Guild also demanded that the government dismantle the misogynistic and abusive digital ecosystem and sought the Supreme Court's intervention to order a probe into these cases.

The Probe's Founder Prema Sridevi is also a victim of online harassment. "Since 2020, I have been facing much online harassment. In early 2020, it all started with more than 500 rings on my phone on a single day from many numbers from Pakistan, UAE, Canada and many other countries. These people started sending abusive messages to me on Whatsapp, and I started blocking and reporting them back to Whatsapp. Then this moved to Twitter, and I realised that my number, along with my full name and photograph, was being circulated on Twitter under abusive taglines. I wrote to Twitter and asked them to pull down those profiles, but they did nothing for a very long time."

Screenshot Online harassment Screenshot of Prema Sridevi's Whatsapp where over 2000 international and Indian numbers were blocked following online harassment

"The harassment on Twitter and Instagram continued. I have so far blocked over 2000 international and Indian numbers on Whatsapp. When I approached a few contacts in the security establishment, I was told that if these were Indian numbers, the law enforcement agencies could act, but it is difficult to act against miscreants operating from outside the country. Even today, I receive these calls, but there's nothing much we can do about it as we don't have effective laws to deal with this kind of online abuse," said Prema Sridevi.

While the chorus is growing for a sweeping crackdown on miscreants who use the internet to harass people, cyber law expert and senior advocate Pavan Duggal says that there is a huge lacuna in the existing laws because of which the troll armies go unpunished.

"Journalists are targeted by the state and non-state actors because of the kind of work they do. Journalists unearth scams, and they ask difficult questions; their prime duty is to uncover flaws in the government's policies. So, the vested interests resort to online harassment of such journalists to psychologically target them through trolling, stalking and other forms of online harassment. India does not have any good track record for trollers and cyberstalkers. They know that India does not have conviction on trolling because if you don't have legal provisions, you will not have convictions," asserted Duggal.

Trolling as a phenomenon is not covered under the Information Technology Act, 2000. Neither it is covered under the direct provisions of the Indian Penal Code. It is these lacunae in the law that makes the offenders feel that they can use the social media platforms as shadow boxing platforms and yet go scot-free.

"In India, intermediaries have been reduced to mere spectators under the IT Act till February 2021 because they were asked to not do anything till such time they got a court order or an order from the governmental agency. In India, getting such a court order or an order from the governmental agency in respect for trolling is a very tall order, and we have not been very successful," noted Duggal.

Journalist and social media influencer Aditya Raj Kaul says that online trolling, especially on Twitter, is the new reality of social media. "I have often faced online trolling for my reportage on Kashmir and for exposing the terrorism-conflict industry around it. The people who have been trolling me are from Pakistan. I have also been trolled by the troll army of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Khalistani militants."

Kaul believes that while the social media platforms gear up to curb hate and trolling on their platforms, they must focus on disinformation, which seems to be one of the most critical challenges for these online platforms.

publive-image TMC leader and Member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs Derek O'Brien’s letter to the Chairman of the standing committee

TMC leader and Member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs Derek O'Brien had written a letter to the Chairman of the standing committee on January 10, 2022. In the letter, Brien expressed concerns related to the volatile software app 'Tek Fog', and he said the app gives cyber troops the ability to hijack Whatsapp accounts of private citizens by sending them spyware disguised as a media file.

He explained in his letter: "It then remotely accesses inactive accounts in their contact lists and uses the inactive number to send targeted messages to all their contacts. All of the hijacked number's contacts are synced to a database on cloud, ripe for picking as future targets of disinformation and harassment".

Calling for an immediate meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs on the subject, Brien further stated: "Use of such manipulative technology is a danger to national security and democratic rights of free speech and unfettered media, and a threat to individual citizens' privacy and safety. I, therefore, request you to call a meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs at the earliest to discuss these developments."

Manisha Pandey, the Executive Editor of the Newslaundry, says that much needs to be done by social media platforms like Twitter to curb such misuse of their platforms. "There is a pattern to this. Whenever you are critical of the current government, you tend to have people attacking you over what you have said. These are mostly not very prominent people on Twitter. Most of them have just one or two followers or no followers at all. Sometimes when other women journalists are tagged on a tweet that is very violent in nature, then I block the person, and I do report it to Twitter. In a few instances, Twitter has taken the tweets down, but it is not the case always."

Pavan Duggal claims that with the coming of the Information Technology Rules, 2021, if a person is being trolled or while being trolled the troller has used content or information that is defamatory, derogatory, abusive, humiliative or violative of the law then the journalists can raise a grievance with the grievance officer of the concerned intermediary.

"Thanks to the IT rules 2021, all intermediaries are mandated to have in place a resident grievance officer within India. Because previously these grievance officers were outside India, it was very difficult to get anything out of them, but now the rule clearly says that if you do not have a resident grievance officer and a grievance mechanism and if you do not address the grievances of different users within a stipulated period then you will be criminally liable. You can write a complaint to these grievance officers, and they must address the grievance in 15 days, and if you are still not satisfied, then you can go to court. This is now a remedy which the journalists can also use," said Pavan Duggal.

Rule 7 of the Information Technology Rule 7 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021

The IT Rules, 2021 has somewhat given a redressal mechanism to the victims of such online abuse. Rule 7 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 empowers the victims of such abuse to initiate criminal action against the intermediaries if the intermediaries fail to comply with the provisions of the IT Rules.

The (Non-observance of Rules) section of Rule 7 of the IT Rules, 2021 stipulates: "Where an intermediary fails to observe these rules, the provisions of sub-section (1) of section 79 of the Act shall not be applicable to such intermediary, and the intermediary shall be liable for punishment under any law for the time being in force including the provisions of the Act and the Indian Penal Code."

"As a citizen, you can go ahead and file a criminal prosecution against the intermediaries and service providers who do not comply with the IT Rules 2021. You can go to a local police station and register a complaint. Alternatively, if you are in Delhi, you can go to the Delhi Police's official website and lodge an FIR. You can also go to the national cybercrime reporting portal, www.cybercrime.gov.in and lodge a complaint," said Duggal.

Many others believe that the law has not kept up pace with the technology. India still has only one mother legislation related to cyber laws, which is the Indian Information Technology Act enacted in 2000. This law was only amended once in 2008. The law is today outdated and has no teeth to fight cyber aggressors who use newer technologies.

Gulshan Rai, who was the first Chief Information Security Officer in the PMO and the first Director-General of CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) of government of India was a key member of the 2017 committee constituted by the government to recommend changes to the law after Section 66A of the IT Act was stuck down. Speaking to The Probe, Gulshan Rai said: “More than the amendment of the law, we need a better political ecosystem where the political parties must come forward and decide that they will not support such illegal activities. The journalists, civil society activists, and other victims of such online abuse should all come together and submit memorandums to the government or the Supreme Court and demand stringent action against the perpetrator. We must have a neutral, efficient, responsible mechanism to create awareness of what existing laws can do to protect people and also build pressure to bring in new amendments to ensure that our law is also keeping pace with the ever evolving and ever changing technology.”

We also spoke to Poonam Agarwal, Freelance Development Researcher with the BBC and Editor, Investigations of The Quint. According to Poonam, most trolls are paid by vested interests. "I have found that if I do a story against a state government and I get trolled for it, the local police don't act. I faced a lot of such harassment in 2017 because of my investigative story. Trolls are mostly people who are being paid and who are working for somebody, and their primary job is to spread propaganda. Nowadays, I feel that when I am not being trolled for my story, then I feel that maybe I have not done enough. Trolling sometimes confirms your work, and it shows that it is clearly making some people angry. These trolls are often those who do not have many followers and they follow specific handles, and if you go through their timeline, you will get to know their leanings. After five years of facing trolling, now I have learnt how to ignore them. Their focus is to harass us mentally; if I get harassed, their job is fructified. But if I am not affected by it, they will fail."

While the media is the fourth pillar of democracy, India still lacks basic laws to protect the media fraternity from falling prey to such online harassment. While online harassment of journalists continues unabated, we are still awaiting amendments and updates to existing laws so that the law can be on an equal footing with every technology that these cyber miscreants misuse.