This year’s World Press Freedom Index ranks India way down at 142nd place. It’s one of the deadliest nations to be a journalist, in other words, and the dangers of carrying out accurate reporting there are only rising now that a Hindu nationalist government with a low tolerance for anything less than glowing commentary is in power. Keeping this in mind puts one in even greater awe of those running the Khabar Lahariya newspaper in India’s north, chronicled over five years in Sundance-awarded documentary Writing With Fire by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas. Not only are they members of India’s embattled media landscape, but they are also Dalit women, so-called «untouchables» deemed so impure they are excluded from the country’s hierarchical caste system, and a highly vulnerable group when it comes to the nation’s endemic levels of gendered violence. When they founded Khabar Lahariya nearly two decades ago, those around them widely expected it to fail. Not only has it survived, it has successfully pivoted to digital, despite some staff never having used a mobile phone prior, and their YouTube channel has clocked tens of millions of viewers.
We are given a window onto the daily lives both on the job and at home of three of Khabar Lahariya’s journalists, in order to understand the kind of risks and pushback they face in a profession dominated by upper-caste men. Meera is the chief reporter. A university-educated mother, who was married at fourteen, her family’s need for income has smoothed her husband’s skepticism over her professional ambitions. Her approach to her role is a fine example of collective knowledge-sharing. She acts as a mentor, coaching the less experienced women on aspects of journalism other newsrooms might expect from day one, such as finding an angle. She is tenacious and idealistic, vocalising her belief in the value of a free press as a means to hold the powerful to account when citizens are denied their rights; as a key democratic safeguard, rather than simply a business. And their paper produces tangible results in this area, increasing local support for their endeavours, as their reports on lacking resources prod the government to act to provide more basic sanitation in homes, repair roads, and hook up electricity.
Other issues are thornier. Meera is finally granted access to interview an up-and-coming leader in Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Brigade), an all-male vigilante organisation founded by Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradash and a vocal right-wing populist. The rising radicalism India is undergoing necessitates increased caution among the women, as they must tread a deft line between reporting truth and not inflaming state ire. A senior woman reporter and women rights campaigner in Bangalore, Gauri Lankesh, who was openly critical of surging Hindu nationalism, is shot dead in the course of the film’s making. News like this only deepens the women’s sense of collective responsibility, even as little ensures their safety.
Not only are they members of India’s embattled media landscape, but they are also Dalit women, so-called «untouchables»
Shady cooperation between the police force and the mafia makes reporting on illegal mining a particularly risky area, and they’re met with some intimidation tactics and warnings. Suneeta worked in the mine as a ten-year-old, as its dust contaminated her village. Now, the mine has ostensibly been shut down, but the mafia continue to operate it illegally, despite fatal accidents. Suneeta becomes the first of Khabar Lahariya’s reporters to represent the newspaper internationally, after she is invited to Sri Lanka to speak at an international conference on the trolling of women journalists (as the paper’s channel’s views click upward, sexist abuse in comments from viewers also increases). Coverage of the axe murder of a woman means a grisly visit to the crime scene — a traumatic experience that also comes with the territory. Women’s dominion over their own bodies is disregarded by the police, who ignore the complaints of a woman repeatedly raped by men breaking into the home she shares with her husband. Khabar Lahariya does all it can to leverage publicity for citizens failed by other avenues and entrenched corruption.
Rookie reporter Shyamkali has left an abusive husband to focus her energies on a new world of possibilities and throws herself into the steep learning curve. In a country where familial duties are considered intrinsic to a woman’s worth, pouring all one’s passion into work is a matter of interpersonal tension and complication. Suneeta enjoys a relationship of easy banter with her father, but he regards her career as a strain. Remaining unmarried is considered shameful, and men who would allow their wives to work tend to demand expensive dowries. Changing perceptions on women’s roles and capabilities through example is the name of the game for the spirited and brave reporters of Khabar Lahariya — and even as India’s political landscape darkens over the film’s course, it’s impossible to conclude they’re not winning.