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Independent journalists in India are being targeted for their critical reporting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many journalists in India are under threat. Authorities target some for critical reporting and dissenting views. Hindu nationalists outside the government also harass them. Investigative reporter and Washington Post columnist Rana Ayyub knows what it's like. Our co-host A Martínez spoke with her.

RANA AYYUB: A, at this point of time, the kind of press censorship that we are witnessing in India, where journalists are being silenced, arrested for stories they have not even reported - when one of India's leading industrialists close to Narendra Modi has taken over one of the few independent press bodies' news channels in India and when the prime minister of the country has not taken a single press conference in the last eight years, who does not believe he needs to address the media - I feel like there is nothing like press freedom in the world's largest democracy of 1.3 billion people. We need to have a robust press, and that is absent because most of the mainstream media is literally repeating the government's line, and the ones who are independent, who are critical, are paying a price for doing that.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And what you described, Rana, is a playbook that regrettably is being used all over the world, in the United States as well. When you consider that, it has to be a chilling thing to think about for a journalist.

AYYUB: It is. I mean, Narendra Modi is a new norm of a new world order, whether it is Duterte in Philippines or Trump here or Erdogan or Bolsonaro or Putin. You look at the attack on the free press, you look at the number of journalists who are behind bars right now, India this year is - in the World Press Freedom Index, India is in the 150th position, where recently a journalist was stopped at the airport from traveling to the U.S. to receive her Pulitzer, when I was stopped this year when I was going to London to speak at a press freedom event.

So this says Modi is only learning and enhancing his skills in silencing the press, which is being practiced by megalomaniac leaders about for - by authoritarian leaders who he is great friends with. So they are all learning from each other, and they realize that they can get away with it with impunity. Whether it is Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, whether it is Modi in India, we see what has happened to countries that have silenced journalists. There has been no repercussion for them.

MARTÍNEZ: Rana, what kind of harassment have you gone through? And how have you handled it? How have you dealt with it?

AYYUB: Oh, well, A, the harassment against me has been more than a decadelong, from my image being mapped (ph) on a porn video and circulated all over the country to being cheated on money laundering case which I am going to face now once I arrive in India. Another court summon - I've just received a court summon a month ago for which I have to appear in a court in 28 of January for an article I wrote in the year 2009, and the accusation against me is that I am a practicing Muslim and, hence, prejudiced in my reportage.

MARTÍNEZ: How does media ownership in India impact the press freedoms there?

AYYUB: Well, I think at this point of time, most of the media groups in India are owned by industrialists and business houses. So to protect their own interests, their platform, the journalism platforms end up becoming a mouthpiece for the government. The structure is such that it is dependent on revenues. Most newspapers in India are dependent on revenues and ads from the government. Many journalists in India who are some of India's finest journalists are now independent consultants. They're not employees of a particular organization. There are many journalists in India who are being arrested, silenced. They can't tell their stories. They're being murdered. We are in a very, very grim place where press freedom is concerned.

MARTÍNEZ: I can't help but just keep thinking about the citizens of India, Rana, who are watching, reading and listening to the news outlets. I mean, do they have a sense of what's going on? Or do they just not care?

AYYUB: A, if you were in India right now and watching the news channels, especially the mainstream media, the way they are literally issuing a dog whistle against the Muslim minorities in India, against the lower caste, the way they're endorsing the government's line, the way they are parroting the line, the way they are making enemies of each one of us, it is nauseating. You have - you might have one Fox News here in India right now. Most of the news channels are incarnates of that. And I think the Indian population, by and large, some sections are, of course, turning to independent platforms, like YouTube and TikTok, but by and large, we are all consuming something that is extremely toxic.

MARTÍNEZ: Rana, I recently spoke to Indian comedian Vir Das about his new special, and we got to talking about his viral video from the Kennedy Center a little over a year ago called "I Come From Two Indias."

AYYUB: "Two Indias."

MARTÍNEZ: When I - yeah. When I found out that I was talking to you, Rana, I remembered this part in particular.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIR DAS: I come from an India where journalism is supposedly dead because men in fancy suits and studios give each other [expletive], and yet women on the road with laptops are still telling the truth.

MARTÍNEZ: Vir Das is not a journalist. He took a lot of abuse and was threatened for his speech. He did say in that - in the start of that clip that, I come from an India where journalism is supposedly dead. I think he hopefully is talking about journalists like you and the others that are fighting back. But how close to dying do you think journalism is in India?

AYYUB: Well, A, there's not a day that goes by where I wake up wondering, how long will I be free or how long will my colleagues be free or how long will the journalists who are writing in India be free? One of my colleagues, Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her house in 2017. Till today, nobody knows who killed her. But we do know that Hindu nationalists in India, many members of the government, were celebrating her murder on social media, right? So at this point of time, I worry about every single person, especially independent journalists in India who are putting everything at risk to fight that battle. Journalists should only worry about reporting the stories and not becoming the story themselves. And that's what, unfortunately, we all have become. We have become the stories in the new India that we live in, the India that Vir Das was talking about.

MARTÍNEZ: Rana Ayyub is an investigative journalist and Washington Post columnist from India. Rana, thank you very much.

AYYUB: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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