March 28, 2022 by Independent Lens in Beyond the Films
By Lennlee Keep
Journalism is a male-dominated field around the globe. A global report on the Status of Women in the News Media by the International Women in Media foundation examined more than 500 companies in nearly 60 countries. The report showed that men occupy the vast majority of the management jobs and news-gathering positions in most countries. The study also revealed that among the ranks of reporters specifically, men hold nearly two-thirds of the jobs, compared to 36 percent held by women.
The 40 female Dalit journalists of Khabar Lahariya, as seen in Writing With Fire, are shattering that narrative by writing their own. These women leaped from the confines and traditional roles restricted by their caste to break the patterns. Rather than report the standard news of the day, Khabar Lahariya journalists report on news and issues through a feminist lens and address how these stories impact the lives of women of all castes in rural India.
In India, journalism is largely seen as men’s work, and being an assertive female reporter can be extremely dangerous. It becomes even more so when women speak out about corruption and buck against systemic oppression. While violence against women is not a typically accepted cultural norm, it’s also not uncommon. In 2017, the women of Khabar Lahariya were given a stark reminder that the cost of truth can be death.
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The outspoken Indian left-wing journalist Gauri Lankesh had been repeatedly threatened for speaking out against the prime minister of India and the Hindu right. On the night of September 5, 2017, she arrived home in Bangalore and had almost made it to her front door when two men on a motorcycle drove by and shot her, once in the chest and twice in the back, killing her instantly.
Such violence against female journalists is not at all isolated to India; it’s prevalent around the world. In December 2020, a well-known Afghani journalist for Enikass TV, Malalai Maiwand, was on her way to work in Jalalabad when she was shot and killed, along with her driver. Maiwand was an activist and had previously spoken out about the dangers of being a female journalist in Afghanistan. Some women there are targeted not for their views or politics but simply for being involved in the media.
In 2021, three women who worked for the dubbing department of Enikass TV in Jalalabad were shot and killed on their way home from work, two of them together, one in a different location but within minutes of the other attack. Ranging in age from 18 to 20, their role at the station was to make copies of broadcasts.
In many countries, journalists can be subject to imprisonment and harsh conditions. In 2021, Reporters Without Borders disclosed that 488 journalists were incarcerated around the world, 60 of those women.
China has jailed 19 female journalists as of 2021, the most in the world, according to the same report from Reporters Without Borders. In fact, China led the world five years straight for most journalists who were imprisoned.
Among those are Sophia Huang Xueqin, a journalist who covered the #metoo movement in China, jailed under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Another is Gulmira Imin, who ran the investigative news site, Salkin, in custody since 2009 for leaking state secrets. Reporter Zhang Zhan was detained in May 2020 over her coverage of the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. She was sentenced to four years for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She protested by going on a hunger strike and as of this writing, is in critical condition.
While Belarus is a very small country, it is currently holding a total of 32 journalists, of which 17—more than half—are women. Two of these reporters are Daria Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyev, who work for the Poland-based independent Belarusian TV channel Belsat. They were sentenced to two years in a prison camp for their live coverage of an unauthorized demonstration.
A military coup in February of 2021 brought with it oppressive control of the citizens of Myanmar and the media. Defiant reporters around the country continued to take to the streets and report despite the danger. Photojournalist Hmu Yadanar Khet Moh Moh sustained a severe head injury when an army truck drove into a group of protestors and hit her.
In 2020, there were two journalists jailed in Myanmar, and in 2021, that number jumped to 53 journalists, nine of whom are women. This makes Myanmar one of the top five countries to jail journalists.
While there are few safe places in the world to be a female journalist, arguably the most dangerous is not a physical place but the internet.
Accessible from almost anywhere, open 24/7, the internet is a conduit for an electronic wave of hatred, harassment, and threats directed at female journalists. A recent study from Reporters Without Borders found that the “internet has become more hazardous for journalists than the street.” In a survey of female journalists, 73 percent had experienced gender-based violence online.
In India in January of 2022, an app called Bulli Bai appeared. This app pretended to “auction” Muslim women, many of them journalists. They stole photos of over 100 female activists and journalists from the women’s social media and posted personal information to make it seem that they were being made available. These women received thousands of abusive tweets and other online harassment designed to frighten them away from journalism. While the app has been removed and arrests have been made, there have yet to be any convictions. Internet hate speech, in addition to being pervasive, is also very difficult to prosecute and punish.
Female journalists being abused and menaced online is a worldwide phenomenon, including here in the United States. The International Women’s Media Foundation, an organization that supports female journalists with training, grants, and support, addressed this crisis by providing seed money for Trollbusters, an organization that helps female journalists and writers experiencing digital harassment. Trollbusters can help women access threats, report the troll to the proper agencies, and practice good “digital hygiene” that could help make them less vulnerable in the future.
Khabar Lahariya’s foray into the world of online journalism has increased their reach to a global audience, and with it substantially increased their personal risk. Their stories have shined a light on the darker corners of local political and police corruption and their work has dramatically changed the lives of families in rural India. Like female journalists around the world, they have made the courageous and daunting decision that the truth is worth their anonymity and possibly their safety.
Lennlee Keep is a nonfiction writer, filmmaker, storyteller, and reticent D&D player. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Southeast Review, and ESME. Her films have been shown on PBS, A&E, and the BBC. The ex-wife of a dead guy, she talks about death more than most people are comfortable with. She is working on a memoir about addiction, grief and a literally broken heart. She lives in Austin, Texas with her son and their guinea pig, Chuck Norris.
Women Journalists Are Targeted Just for Reporting the Facts | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Independent Lens for www.pbs.org