The “judicial harassment” against journalist Rana Ayyub should be stopped and Indian authorities should investigate the “misogynistic and sectarian attacks” made on social media against her, two human rights experts of the United Nations said on Monday.

India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations has, however, described the allegations as “baseless and unwarranted”.

Earlier on Sunday, The Washington Post’s public service initiative, The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership, also put out an advertisement in support of the journalist. The advertisement said that free press was under attack in India.

The statement from the UN experts and the advertisement came days after media reports had claimed that the Enforcement Directorate has attached over Rs 1.77-crore worth of Ayyub’s bank deposits in connection with a money laundering investigation.

The reports, attributed to “agency sources”, had claimed that the central agency’s action was related to “alleged irregularities in charitable funds raised from public donors”. Ayyub had refuted the allegations and said that that she had not received any communication from the authorities about her deposits being attached.

Last month, she had also received online rape and death threats. The Mumbai Police have filed a first information report and arrested one person in the case earlier this month.

In a statement on Monday, the UN human rights experts pointed out that Ayyub is being subjected to constant attacks and threats made online by “far-right Hindu nationalist groups”. The statement has been released by Irene Khan, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Mary Lawlor, the global body’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

They said that the attacks was because of her reporting on Muslims in India, her criticism of the central government for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and her comments on the hijab ban in schools and colleges of Karnataka.

“In response to Ms Ayyub’s efforts to shine a light on public interest issues and hold power to account through her reporting, she has been maliciously targeted with anonymous death and rape threats by organised groups online,” the experts said.

The experts added: “The lack of condemnation and proper investigation by the government, coupled with the legal harassment it has itself inflicted on Ms Ayyub, has only served to falsely legitimise the attacks and attackers and further endangered her safety.”

The statement said that Ayyub’s accounts have been frozen on “baseless allegations” of money laundering and tax fraud. Khan and Lawlor said that similar to “spurious and defamatory accusations” made against the journalist in the past, the allegations of money laundering could also be traced back to a far-right social media groups.

In September, a first information report had been filed in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad city based on a complaint of a Hindutva group named Hindu IT Cell. The FIR was in connection to Ayyub’s fundraising campaigns for Covid-19 and flood relief work in Assam, Bihar and Maharashtra

In their statement, Khan and Lawlor also said that other human right defenders of the UN have previously also written to the Indian government expressing their concern on Ayyub being harassed.

“The government is not only failing in its obligation to protect Ms Ayyub as a journalist, but through its own investigations of Ms Ayyub, it is also contributing to and exacerbating her perilous situation,” the experts said. “It is imperative that the authorities take urgent measures to protect her from the onslaught of threats and hate online and end the investigation against her.”

Ayyub is the author of The Gujarat Files, a book which investigates the religious riots in the state in 2002 when Narendra Modi was chief minister.

‘Allegations baseless’, says India

In a tweet, India’s Permanent Mission to United Nations in Geneva said that the allegations were “baseless and unwarranted”.

“India upholds the rule of law, but is equally clear that no one is above the law,” it said.

The body said that it expects UN special rapporteurs to be “objective and accurately informed”, adding that “misleading narrative” tarnishes the reputation of the global body’s Geneva office.

The Washington Post ad

In the advertisement put out by The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership, the body said that Ayyub faced threats of violence and deaths almost every day and has been a target of “prejudiced investigations and online harassment”.

“Journalists should not fear persecution and smear campaigns,” it said.

The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership promotes press freedom and runs awareness campaigns on rights of journalists.

Money laundering case

The Hindu IT Cell had alleged in its complaint that Ayyub illegally collected money through online fundraising platform Ketto “in the name of charity”. The complaint also alleged that the journalist had received foreign funds without government approval.

According to a report published by PTI, the Enforcement Directorate had issued a provisional order “to attach a Rs 50-lakh worth fixed deposit and the rest amount kept as bank deposits and held in two accounts of a private bank in Navi Mumbai”.

Agency officials had told PTI that Ayyub raised Rs 2,69,44,680 on Ketto. The Enforcement Directorate had also claimed that Ayyub created a fixed deposit of Rs 50 lakh from the funds she had raised but did not use this for relief work.

Ayyub had described the allegations as “preposterous, wholly mala fide and belied by record”. They are based on “an intentional misreading of her bank statements”, the journalist said.

She said her personal bank account could not be used as Ketto required a physical copy of her permanent account number, or PAN, card to be furnished immediately. The document was unavailable at the time, Ayyub said.

“In these circumstances, as I thought that aid to Covid-19 ravaged families should not be delayed, I gave Ketto the details and documents relating to my father and sister’s bank accounts,” the statement said.

The journalist added that she had received no foreign contributions as defined under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.