Priyanka Borpujari's Arrest Exposes The Perils Of Being A Freelance Journalist In India

Twitter profile of journalist Priyanka Borpujari.

A freelance journalist who writes often for The Hindu newspaper in India and some international publications, was whisked away on Tuesday from a demolition site in Mumbai’s Vakola, charged by the Bandra-Kurla police with instigating protestors, allegedly denied access to her phone, roughed up, and held in police custody for about four hours.

Journalist Priyanka Borpujari recalled her ordeal over the phone with HuffPost India:

“The police said I was apparently instigating protestors. I’ve been a journalist for many years now. I have covered human rights. There is no way I would incite violence. I am shocked that this allegation has been levelled against me. I remember clearly, I kept saying over and over again ‘mujhe apna kaam karne do’ (let me do my work). Because that’s what journalists are supposed to do under such circumstances.” Borpujari was not commissioned by The Hindu to cover the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) demolition about 300 metres from her home, in Santa Cruz East. She got to know that houses were being demolished and rushed to the spot.

The ruckus at the demolition site started at around 12:30 in the noon. She was escorted to the police station at about 1:30 PM. Borpujari’s phone was taken away from her and despite her repeated request to be allowed to make a call, she was kept waiting at the police station till about 4 in the evening. She had no idea at that time that she and four other women who were picked up from the site were going to be charged with obstruction of duty.

“They were trying to intimidate me, they kept snatching my phone away, and when I bent down to pick it up, they pulled my shirt. I came home with two-three bruises and contusions.” Borpujari said the police went through the mobile phone she used to take videos and photos of the demolition.

“It was very shocking. It’s my personal phone and had my personal data on it,” she said.

Later in the evening, a policeman, who was documenting the events at the Hans Bhugra Marg, and whom she refused to name, allegedly told Borpujari that if only she had a press card, she would have been let off.

However, Borpujari said that the focus should not shift from the 250 houses that were demolished and their now-homeless occupants. “At least I came back to my house and slept in my bed. Imagine the plight of those people. There’s a bigger story here to report.”

Indian journalist participates in a peace protest near the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad on October 2, 2017.

When Borpujari asked the policeman how could her action — of documenting the razing of houses — be construed as instigation, she was allegedly told that simply the fact that she was present there with a camera in hand encouraged the protestors.

She gave The Hindu a detailed account of what went on at the site, describing police brutality. Journalists from the paper raised the alarm when they could not reach her over her phone. “As is the case now (with contacts saved on smartphones), I could not remember anyone’s number, except for an old friend’s whom I called when they (the police) finally allowed me a call.”

Borpujari did not know at that time that in a WhatsApp group of Network Of Women In Media (NWMI), of which this writer is a member, there were frantic exchanges of messages, not just of solidarity, but also pooling of resources to reach help to her on time. Numbers of lawyers were exchanged, calls to police stations made, tweets posted, and media reports written. The pressure created by senior journalists helped expedite her release, mediapersons on the group conceded.

DCP Anil Kumbhare, Divisional Commissioner for Zone VIII told The Hindu that they detained the freelance journalist “for encouraging slum dwellers and instigating them to protest against the action taken by the BMC.” An FIR has been lodged against the five women under Sections 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 333 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 114 (abettor being present when offence is committed), 141 (show of criminal force), 143 (unlawful assembly) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code, according to the paper.

Press backing, poor pay

As a freelance journalist, Borpujari did not have a press card, a common enough plight for India’s contractual media workers and stringers. The harrowing trial faced by her exposed the plight of freelance journalists in India. The Press Information Bureau (PIB), that issues accreditation cards for access to high security areas such as the Indian Parliament require five years of experience as a full time working journalist. A freelancer must have fifteen years of experience to apply for a PIB card.Foreign journalists (correspondents and camerapersons) require five years of experience as a full time working journalist and a valid J-Visa.

“Most newspapers don’t pay us anymore. Earlier, there was a monthly fixed amount but that was till around a decade ago but that too stopped over the years,” a journalist who has worked as a stringer with many papers for over three decades, told HuffPost India, requesting anonymity.

“Many of the journalists fell on bad times, they were in middle-age, and couldn’t change jobs overnight.”

“Later, some papers used to pay per news ranging from Rs 75-Rs 100 (for each ‘cutting’ news that was printed). This includes a national English paper. Barely 5-6 stories were carried a month, it was nominal amount that couldn’t even cover petrol cost. Then, it was also stopped. They carry our news but don’t pay, expecting that we would have some other means or side business to run household,” the journalist added.

“Many of the journalists fell on bad times, they were in middle-age, and couldn’t change jobs overnight,” the journalist said. “I too worked with a national daily as stringer for years and was promised that I would be given an identity card but it remained a promise which was never fulfilled, forget money, even card was never issued,” the journalist added.

“Even a renowned national news agency pays less than Rs 500 per month though we cover entire district with a population of 20-25 lakh.”

Sexism, a daunting challenge

Gita Aravamudan, an award-winning journalist from Bangalore, has been a freelance writer for 50 years of her life, starting her career as an intern with the Hindustan Times in 1967. She told HuffPost India that threat to personal safety is the commonest peril of working off the grid.

“When I joined journalism there were very few women in newsrooms, and the atmosphere was generally anti-women. The perception was – ‘women can’t go to war, they can’t cover strikes’. When I joined the Indian Express in 1968 in Bangalore (now, Bengaluru), I was the only woman reporter on a beat. You could be a woman on the desk, that was acceptable, but reporting was another matter,” Aravamudan said.

The senior journalist and author recalled being paid Rs 15 per piece back in the 70s. Sometimes she was paid on time, sometime, they payments got delayed. “When you landed an interview with a political leader, you were told by your colleagues, “women have it easy, all they have to do is smile.”

The perception was – ‘women can’t go to war, they can’t cover strikes’.

After her marriage to R. Aravamudan, an ISRO scientist, she was even asked if her husband wrote her articles for her. For the patriarchal media cabal of that time, it was clearly implausible that a woman investigative journalist who wrote in English could have done it without a man’s help.

“Years later, when my husband wrote his first book — ISRO, A Personal History — chronicling his years in space research, I must confess I helped him with his language,” she said, chuckling over the phone.

Rampant sexism aside, Borpujari’s experience is a perfect example of the violence woman journalists face. Senior journalist Gauri Lankesh, a vocal critic of right wing politics, was shot dead right outside her home in Bengaluru on 5 September this year.

From public toilet walls to Facebook walls

India ranked 136 among 180 countries in the latest world press freedom rankings, just marginally better off than its South Asia neighbours with an established track record of assault on press freedom. Journalists in this part of the world work under some of the most stressful conditions, often battling bureaucratic red-tape, threats to life, political and police intimidation, and invasion of their privacy. Freelancers can add limited access, pitiable wages, non-payment of dues on time to the list of pet peeves while covering the world’s largest functioning democracy.

“See, we didn’t have press accreditation at all. In those times, India Today gave me a card that would enable me to go to a telegraph office and send them a telegram. But that card would not guarantee access, or protection from police action.”

“See, we didn’t have press accreditation at all. In those times, India Today gave me a card that would enable me to go to a telegraph office and send them a telegram. But that card would not guarantee access, or protection from police action. Whatever access freelancers get, is based on years of building credibility,” she said.

Sometimes the newspapers and magazines freelancers wrote for, had their back, such as The Hindu in Borpujari’s case and Aravamudan’s many years ago when she needed it to gain access for an investigative story on female infanticide.

“When I was covering dowry deaths for an investigative report, people came and told me I’d better be careful because I don’t know where I’ll end up. Same happened once when I was looking into a story about a group of pornographic filmmakers. Every day at 2:30 PM in the afternoon and 11 PM at night I would get threats over the phone. They clearly knew who I was, because once they found out that I didn’t speak Malayalam, the threats were issued in Tamil,” Aravamudan said.

The freelancer is mostly on her own in these circumstances, she said. However, Aravamudan said the trolling young girls face on social media today, somewhat compare.

“The messages that were scribbled on public toilet walls in our time, now come up on social media walls. It affects you psychologically.”