Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Outside image
Women wait in a queue for a free medical check up held to mark the anniversary of Bhim Rao Ambedkar's death in Mumbai, India, on Tuesday, Decemeber 6, 2022. Ambedkar, an 'untouchable', or Dalit, and a prominent Indian freedom fighter, was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed discrimination based on caste. However Dalit journalists are still significantly under-represented in Indian media [Rafiq Maqbool/AP]

‘Leading the voiceless’ - how low-caste Indian journalists are crowdfunding their own newsrooms

Dalit representation in Indian media organisations is very low. Some journalists from the lowest Hindu caste are finding innovative ways to start up their own news platforms

 

Every month, Meena Kotwal, 32, runs a crowdfunding campaign on social media platforms to cover the operating costs of her newsroom. It is a sisyphean task.

Kotwal runs a news outlet named Mooknayak, which roughly translates to “Leader of the Voiceless”. Mooknayak’s website describes it as a news organisation dedicated to the marginalised and underprivileged people of India.

The Hindi word, Mooknayak, and its relationship with journalism dates back to 1920 when the architect of India’s constitution, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, started a vernacular newspaper which raised the voices of lower caste people of India who suffered caste discrimination.  

India crowdfunding
Inside the Mooknayak offices, a Dalit-centred news organisation set up by Meena Kotwal [Courtesy of Meena Kotwal]

 

The Mooknayak newspaper then was called “Opposition to the Brahmanical (upper caste) ideology”. Dr Ambedkar was a dalit and had suffered caste discrimination in his early life. 

Dalits or “untouchables'' are from the lowest stratum of the Hindu caste system in India. Although the practice of untouchability or caste discrimination is prohibited in India, incidents of caste-based violence and discrimination are still prevalent in the world's largest democracy.

A report released in October 2022 by Oxfam and the Indian online news outlet, Newslaundry, revealed that in 2019, nearly 88 percent of journalists in India were from the general category or upper caste (which now stands at 86 percent).

India crowdfunding
A girl displays a photograph of Bhim Rao Ambedkar on the anniversary of his death in Mumbai, India, on December 6, 2022 [Rafiq Maqbool/AP]

Organisations like Mooknayak are seeking to redress this imbalance. Kotwal’s newsroom has 15 journalists, of which nine work full time while the rest are freelancers. Kotwal says that a majority of her employees are from the lower castes and it is run on the donations she receives through crowdfunding.

“I started a Dalit-centred newsroom because there is very little representation of Dalits in the Indian media. There are very few organisations which give space to journalists coming from the marginalised and underprivileged section of the society. I have faced discrimination while working for an international news outlet and have been called out for my caste so I thought of starting Mooknayak and I was able to start it with my savings in 2021,” she says.

Kotwal’s newsroom recently secured a funding of Rs 10 lakhs ($12,250) through the Google News Initiative.

 

India crowdfunding

 

Rajendra Gautam is another senior journalist based in Lucknow, a northern city in India about 500 kilometres from New Delhi.. He runs an online newspaper named Nishpaksh Divya Sandesh which is a regional Hindi daily. 

Gautam is a Dalit and in August 2022 was forced to lodge a police complaint against an upper caste journalist accusing him of using casteist slurs against him.

In the complaint, he alleges that the other journalist has been directive casteist slurs against him and his family since 2019. When it finally became too much, he lodged the complaint.

Gautam sees this sort of harassment as a means of silencing Dalit voices in the media. “Dalit representation in the Indian media is very low. There are very few Indian news outlets which actually raise the voice of Dalits or minorities,” he adds.

India crowdfunding
Meena Kotwal at work in her office at the newsroom she founded, Mooknayak [Courtesy of Meena Kotwal]

“It is a very tough job being a Dalit journalist in India. Upper caste people (a few - not everyone) cannot see someone coming from a Dalit background and trying to fill the space. It was probably the third incident of my life when I faced discrimination. Otherwise I have had good support from colleagues coming from every caste,” he says, adding: “How isolated or underrepresented Dalits are in the Indian news industry can be understood by the fact that I was subjected to harassment by an upper caste journalist despite being one of the senior names.”

Gautam’s newsroom has a desk of five people and about 20 freelance reporters spread across India’s most populated state of Uttar Pradesh. But it is hard to sustain financially. 

Gautam says it is very hard to run a newspaper sustainably when there are few revenue models for the media other than selling advertising space to private parties or the government - something that does not always work in favour of oppressed minorities and lower-caste organisations. 

India crowdfunding
The small studio at Mooknayak, a Dalit-centred newsroom founded by Meena Kotwal [Courtesy of Meena Kotwal]

He has not found the crowdfunding model workable. “I cannot do crowdfunding to pay my people because you can get money through donations from the public once or twice but not all the time. There needs to be some revenue model which helps you sustain in the long run,” he says.

According to the Oxfam-Newslaundry report, 106 of the 121 newsroom leadership positions examined, including editor-in-chief, managing editor, executive editor, bureau chief and input/output editor, are held by upper-caste journalists. Only five are held by other classes and six by individuals from minority communities, with the identity of four individuals being unknown. 

Oxfam India CEO, Amitabh Behar, stated that this report shows that newsrooms in India are not inclusive for marginalised communities, and that media organisations must do more to uphold the constitutional principle of equality in hiring practices as well as in their coverage.

India crowdfunding
Ashok Das, a Dalit journalist who runs the monthly magazine, Dalit Dastak [Courtesy of Ashok Das]

Ashok Das is also a Dalit journalist. He runs Dalit Dastak, a monthly magazine and news portal of the same name. He says that there is a huge void that needs to be filled in the journalism industry.

Das explains that he felt the need to start his own newsroom when he realised that he was facing discrimination just for being a Dalit during his short stint in a regular newsroom position. “You face a lot of discrimination for being a Dalit and it has become normal. Things like this becoming normal is not good for any developing society and should be called out immediately so I decided to start something which was the voice of voiceless people and with a lot of difficulties I did it. I am still struggling and will call myself successful the day people from the marginalised section are treated equally at least in the Indian journalism industry,” says Das.

India crowdfunding
Ashok Das, founder of the Dalit-centred monthly magazine and news portal, Dalit Dastak [Courtesy of Ashok Das]

“There are a few people like us who have been trying hard to be the voice of Dalits in India. Dalits have hardly found any voice in the Indian journalism industry which is one of the reasons that even today people from marginalised and minority sections are facing discrimination,” he says, adding: “Had journalists from the lower castes got equal opportunities then there would not have been this vacuum.”

Veteran journalist Shrawan Kumar says the problem of caste discrimination in India is a centuries-old one. “The caste problem is not only in the media industry but in every industry. This type of discrimination in the media industry is very wrong because we journalists have been taught that we should remain unbiased. When ‘Journalism’ is our religion then how can we discriminate against our colleagues coming from a lower caste?”

India crowdfunding
Dalit Journalist Babita Gautam gave up work in a regular newsroom and founded the Youtube channel, The Voice Media, after becoming fed up with comments about her caste [Courtesy of Babita Gautam]

Journalist Babita Gautam, who comes from a Dalit background, decided to start her own news outlet after becoming fed up with other journalists from higher castes that she worked with telling her she does not “look like a Dalit”. 

She does not view this as a compliment. “Isn't it casteist and insulting that you are told that you do not ‘look like a Dalit’? I have faced this a lot of times while working in the regular newsroom. The statement seems to be very normal for people coming from privileged castes but this is very toxic and insulting.”

Gautam now runs a Youtube channel called The Voice Media and is also thinking about starting her own news website. “Discrimination on the basis of caste is everywhere. Be it on the field or in the newsroom. This discrimination is the root reason that Dalits and other marginalised people do not get much space in the Indian media,” she says. 

“A lot of changes have come but it is a long journey and we will have to fight our own battle to be treated equally.” 

 

More Articles

Covering the War on Gaza: As a Journalist, Mother, and Displaced Person

What takes precedence: feeding a hungry child or providing professional coverage of a genocidal war? Journalist Marah Al Wadiya shares her story of balancing motherhood, displacement, psychological turmoil, and the relentless struggle to find safety in an unsafe region.

Marah Al Wadiya
Marah Al Wadiya Published on: 29 May, 2024
Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023