As Islamophobia Infects Indian Newsrooms, Muslim Journalists Persevere Amid The Bigotry

17 Aug 2022 12 min read  Share

Hindu majoritarianism gripping India has infected Indian newsrooms, Muslim journalists at the receiving end of communally-coloured comments and jokes, told Article 14. The bigotry, in tandem with the subservience of the mainstream media towards the ruling right-wing establishment, is dictating editorial decisions like the framing of headlines and the selection and display of the stories.

Representative image of a newsroom. /ISTOCKPHOTO

Kanpur: A*, a 41-year-old journalist who has worked in Hindi-language newsrooms in the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh for the past 15 years, has become used to the openly offensive remarks that follow news of Hindu-Muslims tensions flaring up in some part of the country, communal violence, or when a Muslim is accused of a crime. 

“If a terror attack takes place in Srinagar in Kashmir, the general comment in the newsroom is that all Muslims are terrorists," said A. "If communal violence breaks out, the common refrain is, ‘Muslims are never going to change. They will remain illiterate’.” 

“The comments are passed off as jokes, and I’m expected to laugh,” he said. “Despite knowing I'm sitting with them, fellow journalists are not careful with their words. Such things have become common post-2014.” 

A, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisal from his employers, was referring to the year that the former chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi,  led the Bharatiya Janata Party to power at the centre. Prime Minister Modi’s two terms heralded an era of Hindu majoritarianism that legitimised the persecution of minorities and the press (documented here and here). 

The eight Muslim journalists that Article 14 spoke with said that anti-Muslim bigotry in newsrooms of mainstream media outlets—dominated by the Hindu upper caste—has become more open in the years after 2014, manifesting in comments, masquerading as jokes, and dictating editorial decisions including the framing of headlines as well as the selection and display of the stories. 

Aslah Kayyalakkath, the founding editor of Maktoob Media, an independent media outlet, told Article 14 that Muslim journalists “have been silenced in a variety of ways”, and “newsrooms can re-create Islamophobia”. 

“Muslim journalists who are critical of the ruling party and ultranationalism have been silenced in various ways or had their work tokenised by largely upper-caste newsrooms,” said Kayyalakkath. “Journalists at leading publications have expressed their experiences of Islamophobia in those companies. Their social media posts have been scrutinised like nothing on earth.”

“Newsrooms can re-create Islamophobia when they refuse to promote qualified Muslim reporters, dismiss their story ideas and pigeonhole them as only fit to report so-called ‘Muslim’ stories’,” he said. 

Some journalists said there has always been discrimination against Muslims in Indian newsrooms, reflecting biases that predate the BJP winning power eight years ago. But all of them found the advent of muscular majoritarianism, in tandem with the submission of media organisations to the BJP government and its right-wing ecosystem, to have made newsrooms far more toxic than before. 

B*, 38, a non-Muslim reporter working with an English-language newspaper in Lucknow, said he was “disgusted” by how his colleagues behaved, and his heart went out to the Muslim journalists in their newsroom. 

Recalling the day when UP election results were reported in March 2017, and the BJP was barreling towards an unprecedented victory, B said his colleagues were congratulating each other and shouting “Jai Shri Ram”.

“I wondered if I was in a newsroom or the BJP’s office,” he said. 

In January 2020, Muslims in Bhopal burned copies of the Hindi daily, Dainik Bhaskar, headquartered in the city, alleging the newspaper was giving communal colour to every incident and trying to defame Muslims. 

They raised slogans, ‘Dainik Bhaskar murdabad’ (death to Dainik Bhaskar) and ‘Bhaskar teri gunda gardi, nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi’ (Dainik Bhaskar, your hooliganism is not going to work). (A year and a half later, when income tax officials raided offices of the Bhaskar media group, the group said it was for their aggressive coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighting government failure in controlling the pandemic). 

In addition to the humiliation Muslim journalists are subjected to in Indian newsrooms and the resentment Muslims feel at the coverage, Muslim journalists have become more vulnerable to online and offline attacks. 

Kunal Majumder, the India representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US-based non-governmental organisation, said that over the last few years, “We have observed some disturbing trends that show an increase in incidents where Muslim journalists have been targeted for their faith.”  

“We saw this during the northeast Delhi and Jahangirpuri riots, where Muslim journalists were identified and chased," said Majumder. "In an incident, a journalist had to give a Hindu name to escape a mob. In subsequent coverage of sectarian gatherings, Muslim journalists have again been targeted by attendees.” 

Since 2021, scores of Muslim women, including journalists, were targeted through two apps, Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai, that doxxed their information from their social media accounts and tried to humiliate them by "auctioning" them. Of the journalists arrested in the past few years, many are Muslim

Maktoob Media’s Kayyalakkath said how Indian newsrooms covered Indian Muslims was also problematic. 

“We have this idea that covering Muslim stories means covering violence, trauma, and Islamophobia, which in and of itself is not only taxing but a limited way to look at the totality of what it means to be a Muslim in India,” he said. “We need more stories that centre us without having to constantly cater to or explain ourselves to a Hindutva or even liberal gaze. We are more than just our pain. We wish to do more stories on the Muslims’ political, economic and cultural.”

“An Attempt Is Being Made To Demonise Muslims”  

Before he spoke of the bigotry in newsrooms today, A said he believed that Muslim journalists have always faced discrimination in Hindi-language newspapers, accusing them of employing “one token Muslim journalist” to cover “Eid, mushairas (poetry recitations) and madrassas”. No Muslim journalist in his city was assigned beats like politics, government and crime. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, A recalled that as the Muslim graveyard ran out of space in his city, he was told not to highlight Covid-19 deaths. But, when the state government started distributing free rations, he was told to write a story about how Muslims were also getting it.

Lamenting what he called “an attempt to divide society on religious lines”, A said that reports of communal flare-ups were routinely highlighted in the newspaper. At the same time, any story that countered the polarising narrative or showed Muslims in good light was relegated to the back pages. 

“A story about Hindus and Muslims uniting for a cause is played down, but news about a Hindu-Muslim rift is highlighted. If a Muslim does something good, the news will be relegated to page 7 or 8. If a Muslim does something bad, the report will be flashed on page one,” said A. “An attempt is being made to demonise Muslims.”  

Referring to the recent controversy where the BJP leader Nupur Sharma made offensive remarks about the Prophet Mohammad in a debate on television, A said his fellow journalists were divided about whether Sharma should have said it, with some of his colleagues supporting her just because she is Hindu.   

Meanwhile, the message from the people in charge of the newsroom was clear. 

“We were told to highlight every news in favour of Nupur Sharma and ignore anything against her,”  said A. 

'The Trust Quotient Vanished'

C, a television journalist in Lucknow, told Article 14 that he considered himself lucky that the newsroom where he works had not been vitiated with the bigotry that has become commonplace in other places. On the contrary, the 38-old- journalist said the Covid-19 pandemic had brought him close to the Hindus he had helped in the worst months of the outbreak, and he still had their WhatsApp messages thanking him. 

Even though no one had said anything offensive or unsavoury to him, C has felt ill at ease since the BJP won the state election in 2017. There was a certain coolness from the ruling party and bureaucrats B felt. He wondered if that coolness was real or imagined but now believes it to be true.

Noting how difficult it was to get sound bites that used to be routine and easy, B said, “That could be because I am a Muslim. The trust quotient vanished. It was not so before 2017. Ministers and officials were easily accessible.” 

C also feels coolness from his fellow journalists; the number who used to wish him for Eid has dramatically dwindled.

 “Few wish me now," he said. "I feel alienated.” 

‘How Can The Newsroom Remain Untouched?’

D*, a 44-year-old journalist based in Bhopal, who has worked for over two decades in different English-language newspapers, believes he was passed over for important assignments because he is Muslim. 

D said the attitude of his fellow journalists had “hardened”, and things that were not spoken of earlier were now said openly and without context, with no consideration of how it made Muslim journalists feel. 

Now, discussed in perpetuity were topics like Muslim invaders and the "atrocities" they committed during their centuries-long rule, Muslim "appeasement" by political parties, Hindus supposedly having little say in the Hindu-majority country, and the population of Muslims in India.

“The leaders of the ruling party after 2014 amplified such thoughts, and it became a trend or fashion for Hindus to express their views openly,” said C. “If something becomes common throughout the country and society, how can the newsroom remain untouched?” 

Regarding office WhatsApp groups, D said that either the admins do not add Muslim reporters or Muslim reporters have to stay mum when vitriolic messages are freely posted. 

“In the WhatsApp groups, it is freely written that all Muslims are terrorists or they are all illiterate, “ D said.  

‘I Have To Work. I Have To Take Care Of My Family’

E*, a city reporter for a Hindi-language news website in Rampur, said Hindus and Muslim journalists were similarly barred from reporting against the government. Still, when the axe fell, it fell harder more swiftly on a Muslim. 

Like other newsrooms he has heard of, E, 44,  said his newsroom highlighted stories that showed Muslims in a bad light, rarely focusing on any positive news about the minority community. 

 “My organisation treats me well, but if a report of mine is critical even subtly about either the central or the state government, the desk tweaks it to ensure the government is not offended,” he said. 

In one instance, E said that he had given the headline ‘Baba ka bulldozer nahi garja’  (Baba–referring to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath–bulldozer did not work) for a report on how the authorities were not able to raze the house of an alleged offender, because there was nothing illegal about it.  It was tweaked to a headline about people wanting the accused’s house demolished. 

“The headline was tweaked as it would have dented Yogi Adityanath’s image,” he said. 

E  said he had no choice but to keep working. “I have to take care of my house, my family,” he said.

'Self-Censorship Has Set In'

F*,  a 52-year-old journalist based in Delhi, who has been working for two decades for an international media organisation, said that Muslim journalists faced open bias in Hindi-speaking states—UP, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar—not in cities like Delhi and Bombay, but he was now coming across closeted bigots. 

“I know that a few in my office are right-wingers, but they must pretend they are unbiased,” he said. 

G, a 32-year-old female journalist based in Delhi, currently working for a Hindi news outlet, said that she started feeling bigotry for the first time in the past two years. As her organisation is outrightly in favour of the BJP and and against Muslims. But at the same time, her Hindu colleagues sometimes stepped up and criticised the prejudice most vocally. 

“Any news against the central government or the BJP is diluted in my organisation,” she said. 

H, a 37-year-old female Muslim journalist from Assam, said that writing on politically sensitive issues was always difficult, including about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the hijab ban, but now reporters and editors have started self-censoring. 

“Since the coming of a right-wing government to power, censorship over the written word has increased manifold," she said. "Editorials are sanitised, columns are dropped, and worse, self-censorship has set in."

Jawed Naqvi, the New Delhi-based correspondent for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, said that he started receiving hate mail abusing Muslims and using the word  “Pigistan” to describe Pakistan. 

 “I tried to block them, but they always outsmart the technology," said Naqvi. "If Muslims were their only target, I would respond differently. But they hate everyone—the communists, the Dalits, writers like Arundhati Roy, media outlets vocal against them.”

A Question Of Degree 

Shravan Garg, 75, a journalist for 55 years, retiring as the group editor of Dainik Bhaskar in 2012, rejected the notion that Muslim journalists in the mainstream media faced discrimination. 

But Garg conceded things had changed over the past few years as the “intolerance at the top was having a cascading effect and hence, every institution was becoming intolerant”.

Noting that journalists were no freer to write against governments in West Bengal, Bihar, or Tamil Nadu, Garg said that most political parties were wary of criticism and tried controlling the media by cutting off advertisements to outlets that challenged them. Still, the degree of persecution was higher when the BJP controlled the police. 

Citing the recent arrest of fact-checker and co-founder of Alt News, Mohammad Zubair—slapped with one criminal case in Delhi and six in UP, and moved from one police station to another until the Supreme Court granted him bail—Garg said, “The government was irked with what Mohammed Zubair was doing as a journalist. Moreover, he is Muslim.” 

Newsroom Is A Reflection Of The Country 

Atul Chandra, resident editor of the Lucknow edition of The Times Of India from 2001 to 2011, who recently co-authored a book about UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, said that Indian newsrooms were a reflection of the anti-Muslim bigotry in the country. 

“The overall atmosphere of the country has become polluted, and the result is that Muslim journalists are also being targeted in the newsrooms,” said Chandra. “Hate speeches have become the order of the day, and in such a scenario, it is impossible for Muslim journalists not to face barbs.”

“If Jai Shri Ram slogans are being raised in a newsroom, then it is only because we have become divided into communal lines,” said Chandra. “We have started thinking only on communal lines. The media has become too servile. Now, we have the expression ‘Godi Media’.”

However, Chandra sees some hope in Modi calling for the BJP to include the backward Pasmanda Muslims in its OBC (Other Backward Classes) morcha. 

“If such things happen, then things may improve in the future,” he said.

(Rohit Ghosh has been a journalist for 25 years and lives in Kanpur.)