In September 2017, journalist Gauri Lankesh was about to walk through her front door in Bangalore, India, when a helmeted motorcyclist shot her in the head and chest — killing her before she got inside.
Her assassination sparked protests across India and drew attention to her work as a critic of Hindu nationalism and the publisher of an anti-establishment weekly newspaper.
The day she died, another Indian journalist, Rana Ayyub, tweeted that Lankesh had recently published a Kannada-language version of Ayyub's investigative book, “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.” Based on an eight-month investigation, her book accused India's now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi of complicity in violent riots that killed at least 1,000 people in 2002.
“Cowards, bigots,” Ayyub wrote about her colleague's killers. “You disgusting people.”
Less than a year later, U.N. experts are concerned that she may be next.
Since 2010, Ayyub says she has been consistently harassed by those who disagree with her reporting. The threatening or disparaging messages come via voice call, text, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They are often sexual in nature, though they also accuse Ayyub, who is Muslim, of being anti-Hindu and anti-Modi.
One year, she went through 52 SIM cards in an effort to divert trolls who were stalking her over the phone. Online, she said, it seems like a “coordinated social media campaign” intended to intimidate her out of continuing her job as a freelance journalist.
“They say, 'She is an ISIS sex slave, she is a Jihadi Jane.' Now I'm kind of used to it,” Ayyub said in a conversation with The Washington Post this week. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State. “There's nothing I haven't heard. The most-often-used word for me is a prostitute.”
Ayyub thought her experience managing online harassment had given her a tough skin. Then in late April, a parody account on Twitter attributed a quote supporting child rapists to Ayyub, and it quickly went viral. “I tweeted a clarification about the falsehood to no avail,” Ayyub wrote in a New York Times op-ed about her harassment. “My social media accounts and my phone were inundated with WhatsApp messages urging others to gang-rape me.”
The next few days only got worse. Another message appeared, claiming Ayyub had said she hates India and Indians. Soon, a video of her face superimposed into pornography was circulating across the country, infiltrating social media timelines. People were reaching out to her, shaming her, asking if it was real. At one point, someone posted her phone number and address, alarming Ayyub, who feared that the harassment could cross from verbal to physical. She reported it to the police.
“For someone to do that, it's not just a regular troll,” she said. “It's someone who is in the know of things, and aware of my whereabouts, someone who wants to intimidate me and say, 'We know where you are.' ”
The developments also drew the attention of a number of U.N. rapporteurs, who released a statement on Thursday saying they are “highly concerned that the life of Rana Ayyub is at serious risk following these graphic and disturbing threats.” They called on Indian authorities to protect Ayyub and investigate those who are intimidating her.
“We often want to imagine that online threats are just online, they’re just expression, they’re to be protected, and they're not going to seep over into offline space,” said David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who signed this week's statement. “That's evidently not true.”
Kaye said he and other U.N. experts were especially worried in light of Lankesh's murder last year. Ayyub's harassment, Kaye said, has “gone beyond just responses to her reporting” and has been sexual and violent in nature. He said Indian leaders need to set an example by actively protecting Ayyub, and saying that “whether we agree or disagree with her reporting, she and others in her profession are serving an important function in our democracy.”
For now, Ayyub is refusing to leave the country. She said it would signal that trolling works to silence journalists.
“After this, how low can they sink?” Ayyub said. “The only thing they haven't yet done is pick up a gun and shoot me. They haven't done that yet, but they did it to my colleague.”