Press Freedom

Indian journalist Rana Ayyub on facing death threats and a money laundering probe

Rana Ayyub, is one of India’s most high-profile investigative journalists, with a Washington Post column, a Substack newsletter, a popular Twitter presence with an audience of 1.5 million, as well as a controversial 2016 book alleging that government officials were implicated in the 2002 riots that killed Muslims in Gujarat. But in recent months Indian authorities have prevented her from accessing any income from her journalism. 

On February 4, authorities froze her bank account for the second time in six months as part of a money laundering and tax evasion investigation into whether Ayyub had mishandled money that she raised for victims of COVID-19. On March 29, Indian authorities refused to let her fly to a journalism event in London because of the probe.

Ayyub told CPJ and wrote on Substack she collected the money into her bank account, but used it legitimately for charitable purposes. Ayyub’s defenders, including journalist groups, believe the actions against her are in retaliation for her journalism. Last month, U.N. Special Rapporteurs called on Indian authorities to end “the judicial harassment against her,” in a post on Twitter.

Ayyub, a Muslim journalist who is often critical of Hindu right-wing politicians, has a long history of being trolled and threatened online for her work. In 2018 her face was morphed onto a pornographic video clip and circulated via WhatsApp, and over the last year she was listed on two anti-Muslim apps that offered her for sale in a demeaning fake “auction” publicized on Twitter.

The harassment escalated in January, when Ayyub received more than 26,000 tweets, many of them containing death and rape threats, after she tweeted criticism of the Saudi Arabia government’s ongoing role in the Yemen war. The threats only intensified when a news website published a video that included a doctored photo of a tweet purportedly by Ayyub, saying, “I hate India and I hate Indians.”
Ayyub has long contended that the most vicious threats against her originate from fans of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; an investigation in Indian newspaper The Wire found that political operatives of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party systematically targeted Ayyub and other female journalists using an app called Tek Fog. Now she believes that the government is using another means to target her with its tax probe.

“The entire machinery of the state was unleashed against me,” she wrote on her Substack newsletter.

BJP spokesperson Syed Zafar Islam did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via text message.

Ayyub’s recent legal troubles began in May 2021, when income tax authorities initiated an investigation into her on charges of tax evasion. In an interview with CPJ, Ayyub said authorities opened the investigation after OpIndia, a pro-BJP right-wing website, published articles accusing her of illegalities in her charitable efforts. Between April 2020 and June 2021, Ayyub had raised 26.9 million rupees (US$350,000) via Ketto, an Indian online fundraising platform, to help people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Income tax authorities notified her that the entire sum should have been considered personal income because she collected it in her personal account instead of setting up a separate account for fundraising purposes. (CPJ has reviewed the notification.) Her bank account was frozen in August 2021 until she paid a 10.6 million rupee income tax (US $210,000) as well as an additional 4.5 million rupees ($59,000) as advance tax on her income from Substack and the sale of a property.

Ayyub said she paid the taxes under protest in order to unfreeze the accounts, and is challenging the taxation in court. She claims she already paid the taxes she owed on the charity – some 10.6 million rupees (US$140,000) – and donated 7.5 million rupees (US$99,000) to PM Care and CM Relief Fund, charities headed by Modi and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray respectively. She said that income tax authorities kept five million rupees frozen (US$66,000) and that the rest she spent buying food grains. CPJ contacted the PM Care and CM Relief Funds to confirm the donations but did not receive a reply to its emails.

“It is abundantly clear that no part of the relief campaign funds remains unaccounted for,” she wrote on Substack, “and there is absolutely no scope for any remote allegation of misuse of the personal funds.”

Ayyub again had access to her account — but not for long. Within a few months, the Enforcement Directorate, a financial fraud investigative body housed in the ministry of finance, opened another investigation in relation to the COVID-19 charity campaign and in February froze her bank account for 180 days, she said. (CPJ also reviewed the directorate’s notice.)

The Enforcement Directorate’s notice, which specifically dealt with a 17.7 million rupee sum (US$230,000), claimed that Ayyub violated the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and “received donations from the general public donors with pre-planned intent to cheat the general public donors.” The amount frozen includes Ayyub’s earnings from her writing and other sources of income, she said on Substack.

The Enforcement Directorate and the income tax authorities did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment sent via email.

The new probe was triggered after Uttar Pradesh police in September of last year filed a first information report, the first step in an investigation, against Ayyub based on a complaint by Hindu IT Cell, a Hindu right wing group, which has accused her of money laundering, cheating, dishonest misappropriation of property, and criminal breach of trust over her COVID-19 charity campaign.The first information report also accused her of receiving foreign funds into her personal account, allegedly violating India’s foreign contributions law. Ayyub has said that she instructed Ketto to return foreign funds.

Some of our members had donated to her campaign but were very disappointed with the way she handled the money. Therefore we lodged a complaint with the police,” Hindu IT cell’s co-founder Vikas Pandey told CPJ in a phone call.

In an interview in Mumbai, Ayyub told CPJ that she raised money during the pandemic as she tried to help those in need, particularly migrant workers. “Initially I was spending my own money and then people started offering to help. Then someone suggested that I use Ketto to raise funds for a bigger impact.” she said. “If I wanted to raise money for my own personal use, I could have easily done it.”

Ayyub rejects the accusation of money laundering. “Where have I laundered the money to?” she asks. The Enforcement Directorate notice made reference to a trip Ayyub took to Goa, in southwestern India, as evidence of personal use of funds which Ayyub said was absurd. “They are accusing me of going on a holiday to Goa using [the] money,” she said, noting that the trip cost her only tens of thousands of rupees, or just a few hundred dollars. “Don’t I earn enough to afford such a small expense?” she added. She is in the process of challenging the Enforcement Directorate’s order in a court.

“My lawyer has made me promise never to do any good for anyone,” she said jokingly. “Look where it has landed me.”

Meanwhile, Hindu right wing activists, including the Hindu IT Cell, filed multiple complaints against Ayyub with police across three states, demanding an investigation into Ayyub in relation to her February 9 interview with the BBC World News in which Ayyub called a mob of right-wing protesters harassing Muslim college girls wearing hijab “Hindu terrorists.” The interview was in the context of a hijab ban in public educational settings in the southwestern state of Karnataka.

On March 3, police in Karnataka opened an investigation based on these complaints into Ayyub and accused her of deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings in violation of the Indian penal code. If charged and convicted, she could face up to three years in prison and an unspecified fine, according to the law. Karnataka Director General of Police Praveen Sood did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

Ayyub, for her part, has vowed to continue her journalism. “I will survive this,” she told CPJ. “I have survived worse.”

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