At the time of writing, 37-year-old investigative journalist Rana Ayyub is afraid to leave her Mumbai home for fear of being attacked by armed gangs or by the government whose agents sit and watch from nearby streets. It’s the culmination of 15 years spent publishing independent and fearless exposés on religious violence in India and extrajudicial killings by the state, first as editor of investigative magazine Tehelka and since 2019, as a Washington Post opinion columnist. Ayyub has dared to speak out about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s divisive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and doing so has come at a price.

The Indian government is responsible for most of the cyber-abuse, according to Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific Director at Reporters without Borders (RSF). ‘The BJP’s IT Cell is a department within the ruling party that creates a narrative which is in favour of the prime minister and his supporters.’ The ricochet of incoming tweets are not spontaneous acts of cruelty from random members of the public, but the orchestrated and systematic product of ‘troll armies’ and ‘click farms’. ‘India is actually at the forefront of the phenomenon of using trolls and click farms to impose a narrative,’ says Bastard. ‘And the best way to impose a narrative is to create enemies. So you have to fight to make your hero win and their hero is, of course, Narendra Modi, and Rana Ayyub is the perfect enemy.’

According to Bastard, the first wave of cyber harassment began in 2018, not long after the publication of Ayyub’s book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, which charts the Indian state’s complicity in the 2002 Gujarat Riots and Modi’s rise to power. Digital lynch mobs have since become part of Ayyub’s everyday life.  Her face has been superimposed onto pornographic images. She has been branded a ‘presstitute’, ‘sickular’ and ‘porkistani’, cruel portmanteaus that epitomise a uniquely gendered and Islamophobic form of hatred.

After criticising the Saudi government’s role in the Yemen war on Twitter, Ayyub received 50,000 abusive tweets in just two days. ‘Most of them celebrating their own trolling, some threatening to rape and kill me and my family, and others amplifying faked stories claiming I had been banned from Islamic countries,’ she writes in her Substack newsletter. ‘My Instagram and Facebook inboxes were flooded with the kind of vile hatred I had never dreamed one human could have for another.’

Dr Julie Posetti, Global Director of Research at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), is currently working in partnership with University of Sheffield computer scientists to create an early warning system for detecting and preventing the escalation of online violence into offline attacks. Rana Ayyub is one of their case studies. They have collected and analysed millions of social media posts directed at Ayyub, and Posetti regards her case as one of the most serious and extreme that  she has ever seen.

‘She is treated to heinous, misogynistic threats and abuse,’ says Posetti. ‘At the same time, these intersect with vile expressions of religious bigotry and abuse designed to discredit her professionally. So she’s targeted for being a woman, she’s targeted for being a Muslim, and she’s targeted for being a journalist.’ Posetti’s earlier research has pointed to similarities between Ayyub’s case and that of Nobel laureate Maria Ressa’s in the Philippines, who is facing over 100 years in prison after being found guilty of ‘cyberlibel’. ‘It’s like the mob is baying for her arrest and detention,’ says Posetti. ‘We saw exactly the same thing with Maria, which occurred two years prior to her actually being arrested, and detained and charged, and then eventually prosecuted and found guilty on trumped up charges. Now, she faces decades in jail.’

In a global 2020 study co-published by UNESCO and ICFJ, one in five women journalists said they had been attacked or abused offline in incidents seeded online. In India, where religious tensions are perpetually at risk of spilling into widespread violence, the manifestation of a physical lynch mob is a very real possibility, particularly as Ayyub’s address has been circulated online.

The BJP’s offline and online ambushes go hand in hand, with large-scale disinformation campaigns designed to blur the lines between fiction and reality. ‘They use disinformation tactics as a way of increasing the hatred and abuse she’s exposed to and increasing, in parallel, the offline risks she faces,’ says Posetti. Fake videos of Ayyub being arrested are currently circulating online, while #ArrestRanaAyyub trends on Twitter. ‘They falsely accuse her of being a criminal, but there are no convictions,’ says Posetti. ‘They call her a propagandist falsely – she is an internationally published, highly respected, highly awarded, independent journalist.” Ayyub’s awards include the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage, Free Press Unlimited’s Most Resilient Journalist Award, and the Sanskriti Award for Integrity and Excellence in Journalism.

The past month has seen an escalation in what Posetti calls ‘lawfare’, which in Ayyub’s case has led to the reinstatement of an investigation that was stalled after being started last year. She explains that spurious complaints about tax fraud and the misuse of funds – usually made by far-right groups that align themselves with the BJP – led the Indian central government on 10 February to freeze Ayyub’s bank accounts along with all her assets and credit cards. ‘A retaliatory and somewhat arbitrary response to her critical independent journalism,’ says Posetti. ‘Journalism that has been particularly focused on, and critically focused on the BJP, and Narendra Modi’s government.’ The UN has demanded an immediate end to what they described as the state’s ‘judicial harassment‘.

With four journalists killed in connection to their work in 2020, RSF has called India one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters. Both Bastard and Posetti, who are in regular contact with Ayyub, are deeply concerned about her welfare.  In September 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a high-profile and acclaimed journalist critical of right-wing Hindu extremism and the BJP, was shot dead outside her home in Bangalore. ‘We don’t want another Gauri Lankesh,’ says Bastard. ‘That’s why it’s very important to follow everything that has happened to Rana very closely, because many people call for her to be murdered. And that’s very serious.’ After tweeting about Kashmir in July 2020, Ayyub received an onslaught of rape and death threats, including chilling suggestions that she might share in her former colleague’s fate.

‘I am certainly concerned about her mental health, and those of us who study and advocate in reference to online violence against women journalists, believe one of the critical things is for society to recognise that psychological harm is real,’ says Posetti. ‘Ayyub is experiencing this psychological warfare in the context of a high-risk physical environment, which adds to the stress of the situation.’ Posetti has urged the international community to support Ayyub, to stand in solidarity with her on social media and to subscribe to her work. ‘It takes incredible bravery to do what Rana is doing, which is continuing to raise her voice, continuing to speak up online, continuing to write her pieces for the Washington Post, to refuse to be silenced,’ she says.

‘As a journalist who enjoys an immense social media following, who has access to some of the most important publications in the world, who has a platform to bear witness… I cannot look away,’, Ayyub writes on Substack. ‘That would be the biggest betrayal to my profession and to the faith placed in me by those who do not have that privilege’.

Picture credited to @RanaAyyub.