New York, February 24, 2020 — Bharatiya Janata Party officials must cease inciting online harassment against journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani, and Indian authorities should ensure that threats against journalists are taken seriously, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Sherwani, a senior editor at the news website The Wire, told CPJ in a phone interview that officials in the ruling party and their supporters are intentionally spreading misinformation about her online and attempting to smear her as calling for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in India. She said she has received death and rape threats on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in relation to the smears.
On January 26, Amit Malviya, the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s information technology department, shared an edited video clip on Twitter that he alleged showed that Sherwani was discussing a “strategy” for building a caliphate. The video, a 42-second clip of a speech that Sherwani gave at Aligarh Muslim University, was taken out of context so a portion of her speech discussing strategy for secular protests was cast as a strategy for building a caliphate, according to news reports.
The video was also tweeted by other party officials, including spokesperson Sambit Patra, who said Sherwani was trying to set up an Islamic Caliphate, by the party’s official account for Karnataka state, which alleged she had a hidden agenda, and by Priti Gandhi, who runs social media for the official women’s wing of the party, according to social media posts and news reports.
Those posts have been retweeted tens of thousands of times, and the replies include threats and smears against Sherwani, branding her as anti-Hindu and saying that she has no place in India.
“It is extremely irresponsible and dangerous for Bharatiya Janata Party officials to be targeting and distorting journalist Arfa Khanum Sherwani’s comments,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher. “Party officials should not spread misinformation about journalists online, and Indian authorities must ensure that threats made against Sherwani are taken seriously.”
Sherwani, who hosts a video news program for The Wire, told CPJ she thinks she is being targeted because of her large viewership, and particularly because of her reporting and commentary on the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, which critics allege discriminate against Muslims. She said she thinks she is an “easy target” because of her Muslim name.
She said she has faced online harassment frequently in recent years, and that such harassment has intensified since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reelection in May 2019.
Malviya, Patra, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national spokesperson for media, Anil Baluni, did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment via email.