22 February 2019 09:16 AM



#Presstitute: The Online War Against Women With An Opinion


NEW DELHI: The hashtag ‘presstitute’ is a common sight when one comes across hate comments directed at journalists on social media. The term is a combination of the words ‘press’ and ‘prostitute’, thus indicating those journalists and news organizations who are “inappropriately influenced by and biased towards particular business interests, political motives etc.”.

It is exactly this hashtag that features most often when scrolling through the comments section on Barkha Dutt’s twitter page, indicating the idea that “just as prostitutes sell their bodies for money, @BDutt sells her country for news”. This comment, found on the journalist’s twitter page, is just one among a plethora of others that exemplify the deep-rooted misogyny that plagues our society thereby colouring the comments directed at female journalists with the same.

(source: twitter)

The idea that every argument necessarily requires a counter argument to be truly balanced is the hallmark of a good democracy. Different perspectives to a single issue allow for a well-rounded and informed opinion; this, however, is not what the comments section is used for in the slightest. A tsunami of racist, sexist, and violent threats hit the reader of this section when s/he explores it to find constructive feedback. These ‘trolls’ have “become a part of life now, and words such as slut, whore, c**t and bitch have all become part of the daily abuse” said Neha Dixit, a renowned independent journalist, in an interview with The Citizen.

The violent sexual undertones of the comments that plague the feed of female journalists is drastically different than that faced by their male counterparts. While the latter also faces his share of abuse, it primarily consists of words coloured by Islamophobia and labelling of them as ‘anti-nationals’. Female journalists have the added burden of being a woman with an opinion, therefore it is not the opinion that they hold that attracts the hate as much as the fact that they hold an opinion in the first place.

Audury Wood, editor of The Arunachal Times, in an interview with The Citizen talked about the destructive institution of patriarchy where “women are supposed to maintain silence,” and any instance of transgression by not abiding to this ancient instrument of suppression would inevitably be met with resistance, as we see represented by rhetoric used by the ‘trolls’.

(source: twitter)

The above screen cap is one of the comments journalists like Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt receive on a regular basis. The comments directed at the two are aggressively sexual, with rape threats and abuses about appearance being very common. “Social media, although extremely laudable for its growing reach and influence, has a dark side that has encouraged this rhetoric (of sexual violence).

The security of a screen allows these trolls to become bolder and more violent in the language that they use. They do not usually see the women at the receiving end of these comments to be real people, but as images and ideas that threaten their patriarchal society,” observes Meera*, a social activist working closely with the feminist movement in India.

Even though there have not been many recorded cases of these comments taking the form of action, it is not a completely unimaginable thought; Dixit had her real home address tweeted out while a journalist in Arunachal Pradesh faced an assassination attempt. “Even though there has been no physical threat to my life, the mental harassment that I receive on a regular basis is very real,” said Dixit.

While it is easier to believe that women have come a long way in being integrated into the public sphere, the idea of a ‘male territory’ in journalism i.e., certain topics being part of the male domain, is still very evident. As Dixit pointed out, the ‘trolling’ and the vicious rhetoric that accompanies it is almost negligible when female journalists deal with topics considered “soft” and therefore more appropriate for the ‘fairer sex’.

Critical and ‘profound’ opinions, on matters pertaining especially to politics, incite more of this trolling, with the content of the comment focusing not on the opinion, but on appearance and sex.

Although the receivers of this kind of hate often have no choice but to ignore it, this does not take away from the fact that it has a very significant impact on the content that female journalists are forced to produce and be associated with. “The phrasing of the work and topics chosen by (female) journalists who don’t want to be subjected to this kind of abuse indicate their retreating back into the oppressive space marked out by society,” noted Meera*.

In their attempt to meet the standards and limitations of their male readerships we see that freedom of speech is not yet an absolute reality for most women who wish to succeed in the field.

(source: twitter)

With reference to the defence attributed to the lewd comments made by the ‘trolls’ which is essentially that they are exercising their freedom of speech, Dr Moushumi Dey, a prominent member of the media industry in Meghalaya and lecturer at St. Edmund’s College, said, “If it (the comments) impinges personal identity and sense of dignity then the comments should be censored or banned,”. Wood, Dey, and Dixit were unanimous in their method to combat these ‘trolls’ which is to ignore them and drown out their voices via their merit.

Dixit elaborated on the idea further by saying, “There are several anonymous twitter handles that tweet the same thing and target those that are anti-establishment. They are encouraged by people with political power and there are several (trolls) who even have pictures with ministers,”. Apart from the action taken in the recent case involving Rana Ayyub, where the UAE government revoked the visa of Bincylal Balachandran due to the abusive messages he sent her on Facebook, this abuse is yet to see any form of redressal in India.

The term ‘feminist’ has acquired such a negative connotation of late that it accompanies other words intended to abuse women. What this indicates is that is the continued unwillingness of society to accept the idea of a woman having equal rights, opinions and opportunities as a man. While male journalists are definitely not spared from the abuse that the ‘trolls’ spew, they are however exempted from the sexual harassment that their female counterparts have to face on a daily basis with comments having violent sexual overtones coupled, mind you, with other abusive remarks.

All women can do today is block the noise of these haters and continue to fight until they are finally seen as more than just their sex. While the ‘transgressing woman’ represented by the female journalist may be frowned upon by more than half the society that they are a part of, the inspiration and hope that it provides the other half is what makes the fight worthwhile.