For over a month now, journalist Sandhya Ravishankar has been receiving death threats and facing online abuse that she has blamed on VV Mineral, a sand-mining company in Tamil Nadu that she has named in her reports about illegal sand-mining on the state’s southern beaches. She has accused the company of stalking her and taping her, and said the online trolls even leaked her mobile number.
“I am so sick and tired of all this,” she said in an interview at a cafe in Chennai on Monday. “I just want to get done with this and move on to another story.”
It was past 3 pm, and Ravishankar had just returned from a meeting with Chennai city police commissioner S George. “The commissioner has asked me not to go out of town for some time,” she said. “If I have to travel, then everyone would be worried.”
Ravishankar heads The Lede, a network of journalists in South India who provide reportage for several publications, including Scroll.in.
The threats of physical assault and even death started in February, right after Ravishankar’s four-part series on the illegal beach sand-mining was published in the online magazine The Wire. The articles – the result of four years of research and reporting – detailed how laws had allegedly been violated and official reports fudged for over 30 years by powerful mining companies. They alleged that illegality was rife in the operations of S Vaikundarajan, owner of VV Mineral, who, along with his family and associates, controls a large share of the beach sand-mining sector in the country.
Within a month of the series being published, Ravishankar received a legal notice from VV Minerals, accusing her of defaming the company and its owner. It also claimed she had a “vindictive motive” in writing the articles because her husband had been denied a job by News 7 Tamil, a media outlet in which Vaikundarajan owns a sizeable share.
Ravishankar was also trolled on Facebook and Twitter. Several blogs alleged she had been paid by Vaikundarajan’s rival Dhaya Devadass, also a miner, to write articles against VV Mineral.
Dismissing the claims as false, Ravishankar said this was not the first time she had faced such accusations. She had received a similar notice in 2015 for an article she had written in the Economic Times on illegal beach sand-mining. There is also an ongoing criminal defamation case against her in a Tirunelveli court for the article.
“At that time, my rate was Rs 50 lakhs apparently,” Ravishankar said, referring to the amount VV Mineral claimed she demanded from them as bribe. “Now it has gone up to Rs 200 crores. I have moved up in life.”
Stalked, taped, number leaked
But this time round, the threats she has received are unlike the other times. She said that after one of the blogs released her mobile number, she had been inundated with calls from anonymous people threatening to harm her and even kill her. This had prompted her to inform the police as well as various press clubs.
The blog also called her anti-jallikattu – a reference to the popular bull-taming sport, a sensitive subject that had sparked massive protests in Tamil Nadu in January over a Supreme Court ban on it.
“It is very organised now,” said Ravishankar. “They [VV Mineral] have admitted that as an organisation they are stalking me and videographing me without my knowledge. And that is a threat. It is an invasion of my privacy. So I have a problem with that.”
An email sent by VV Mineral Employees Association to several media organisations on Sunday confirmed that it was indeed following her. The email was in objection to an article published in Huffington Post that sympathised with the journalist. In the email, the company said it had observed that Ravishankar would often meet with her “mafia gang”, who were retired Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service officials, at a certain cafe in Chennai to “prepare the criminal plan”.
“We are having sufficient evidences and we instruct our advocates to file criminal complaints against Sandhya,” wrote C Sakthi Ganapathy, a member of the association. “Very soon we will file criminal complaint with video evidences.”
Scroll.in emailed a set of questions to the VV Mineral Employees Association on Tuesday, asking whether Ravishankar’s number had been leaked by a social media handle associated with them and if she had been followed and videographed without her knowledge. It received no response to the email.
Bullying the media
The company’s email said Ravishankar’s reports were “based on her imaginations, false figures and a total cooked up story”. And it claimed to have proof of her negative motive in writing the articles, and said it would present this in court if necessary.
“The ultimate motive [of Ravishankar] is to spoil the fame of Mr Vaikundarajan and to destroy his business and to prejudice the judiciary as well as government against VV Mineral,” the email alleged.
Ravishankar is not the first journalist to be thus threatened by VV Mineral. Others who have followed the story have also received numerous phone calls and legal notices from the company. Frontline journalist Ilangovan Rajasekaran said he had been receiving threats since 1995, when he wrote about the environmental impact of beach sand-mining. He had even got himself transferred to another district to escape the threats.
“I have now become immune to intimidation, abuse and legal notices from VV Minerals and other miners since 1995,” said Rajasekaran. “But this trend of bullying journalists who do their duty should be condemned and stopped. The state always remains a non-player.”
Support pouring in
Ravishankar said that constantly dealing with the trolls and the emails from VV Mineral was proving to be a hindrance to her work. Since the company had directly sent her a legal notice, instead of sending one just to the publication, she has also had to hire her own lawyer to fight the case in court.
“I have to keep replying to mails,” she said. “I have to keep drafting legal responses. I have to sit with my lawyer to draft all this.”
But Ravishankar is heartened by the support she has received, not just from within the country but from across the world. According to a press release, over a thousand people, including activists, researchers, homemakers, mediapersons and information technology professionals, have signed an online petition condemning the threats she has been receiving.
“The threats to Sandhya indicate attempts to silence her and the trolls have been hurling gender-based slurs,” said a statement. “Such threats to women in the field of journalism need to be countered strongly by authorities as well as civil society. This is a question of safeguarding fundamental democratic rights.”