Mumbai police commissioner Hemant Nagrale tells a press conference on January 5, 2022 that three people were arrested for alleged involvement in a fake online auction offering prominent Muslim women for sale, including several journalists. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

Women journalists in India feel more at risk after ‘auction’ apps worsen online abuse

Fatima Khan had just returned home from a reporting assignment when she discovered she’d become of more than 100 women listed as being “for sale” in the notorious app Bulli Bai.

The site, named by combining a vulgar, derogatory slang for Muslim women (bulli) with the Hindi word for female servant (bai), operated by pulling the target’s publicly available photos and contact information from social media and offering     the women for sale in a demeaning fake auction publicized on Twitter.      

The Twitter account that initially tagged Khan has since been suspended, as has the app and its predecessor app Sulli Deals, which also featured Khan among about 30 Muslim journalists, politicians and activists. Both apps shared personal information about the women and were built on the Microsoft-owned software development platform GitHub, which announced earlier this month that it had suspended a user account for violating company policies.

CPJ identified more than 20 journalists among the women targeted by Bulli Bai’s creators. Besides having gender and religion in common, all have reported critically on how the central BJP government’s policies have impacted religious minorities. Most are in their 20s, new to the profession, and have faced backlash on social media. In the past, women reporting in India have told CPJ that while such abuse appears spontaneous, many account-holders who were involved self-identify as BJP supporters, and their activity aligns with the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist ideology. (Sambit Patra and Syed Zafar Islam, national spokespeople for the BJP, did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment on these allegations.)

Police say they have arrested the creators of both apps. News reports said they claimed no political affiliation, but The Wire news website reported this month that at least one similar app, Tek Fog, was still secretly in operation, citing screenshots shared by a whistleblower who said they were a former BJP employee. Tek Fog features many of the same journalists as Bulli Bai, including Khan, but is not available to the general public; it also suggests offensive language for users to share about the women involved and ways to magnify those messages on social media, according to The Wire.

CPJ’s Kunal Majumder spoke to three women who appeared in both Bulli Bai and Tek Fog about the nature of their reporting, and the impact of abuse on their work: Fatima Khan; Ismat Ara, a Delhi-based journalist for the news website The Wire; and Quratulain Rehbar, a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.

Fatima Khan, 24, The Quint, New Delhi

(Photo: Fatima Khan)

Khan found her photo listed as “Bulli bai of the day” last December after she returned from reporting in neighboring Haryana on the increase in hate crimes against Christians under the state’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP.

“My name itself is enough to rile up these people,” Khan told CPJ. “I know many Hindu journalists who are covering similar issues and they get their fair share of hate – but if they had a Muslim name, I can only imagine how much worse it would be.”

Before moving to The Quint, Khan began her career with The Print news website in 2018, reporting on gender and hate crimes, including a series on the killings and violence against Muslims in the aftermath of the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which human rights groups have accused of discriminating against Muslims.

In 2020, she reported on the sectarian riots in Delhi and was threatened by a Hindu-right wing mob while reporting. Her colleague called her by a fake Hindu nameto save her from being attacked, she told CPJ.

Khan said that as a working journalist, a woman and a Muslim, she frequently faces abuse. “My DMs would be filled with something nasty at any given point of time,” she said. However, she described feeling concerned at the apps’ concerted and organized efforts to target her.

Khan hadn’t thought much about how the harassment could affect her offline until someone recognized her in the field reporting on upcoming Uttar Pradesh state elections, she said.

“My immediate reaction wasn’t happiness to be recognized. My thought was, ‘Is he someone who doesn’t like me? Or part of one of those apps or that ecosystem?” I imagine this is not how every journalist would react.”

Ismat Ara, 23, The Wire, New Delhi

(Photo: Ismat Ara)

In February 2020, Ara first experienced online abuse after she wrote a first-person account of being threatened by a mob while reporting on the Delhi riots. “I got a lot of hate messages on Facebook,” she told CPJ in a phone interview.

The attention didn’t stop after she joined The Wire in August 2020, reporting on politically and religiously sensitive issues including the aftermath of the 2020 Delhi riots, which claimed the lives of at least 50 people, the majority of whom were Muslim; the alleged gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh, contradicting the police’s claim that the incident was an honor killing; the national farmers’ protest against two controversial laws approved by the BJP-controlled parliament; and a conspiracy theory calledLove Jihad,” which purports that Muslim men target Hindu women for conversion to Islam by means of marriage.

“Never in my life have I faced so much trolling as I have in the last two years,” Ara said.

“However, for me, it is not worth [my time]. What really angered me [about Bulli Bai app] was the impunity [with] which the people behind these apps operated.”

On January 1 this year, Ara became the first victim to file a complaint about the Bulli Bai app with the Cyber Cell of the Delhi police.

“I get threatened online all the time. [But] what if my photo is circulated on the ground? Even if there is a 0.01% chance, if it puts me at risk and stops me from doing my job [as a journalist], which I absolutely love to do, then it is very sad.” 

Quratulain Rehbar, 27, freelance, Srinagar

(Photo: Quratulain Rehbar)

Rehbar, who began working as a freelance journalist after India revoked the political autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, is among the few women reporting in the volatile region. She has contributed to news websites including VICE, Firstpost, and The Wire, but never took online harassment seriously until personal details gleaned from her Twitter account were exposed by the makers of Bulli Bai, she told CPJ.

“Working in Kashmir is very different from working in Delhi or Mumbai,” she said. “I know those journalists also have their struggles. It is very difficult to work in Kashmir. There was always this fear of security, surveillance and intimidation, and now online doxxing and trolling.”

Rehbar experiences more abuse after reporting on human rights issues, especially for international outlets, she said. Her story on women in Kashmir impacted by the communication shutdown in 2019 was one of the first to meet with hostility

Already under pressure from local authorities for doing her job, Rehbar described the situation for women journalists in the region as a “double assault,” with authorities on one side, and Hindu nationalists on the other.

 “I used to think that I’m a journalist so [trolling] is fine,” she said. “However, this time [with Bulli Bai], it has become too much. My energy is drained. This has taken a serious toll on my mental health. I have been struggling to do my work.”

[Editor’s note: The third paragraph of Fatima Khan’s interview and the first paragraph of Quratulain’s interview have been updated to correct their career timelines.]