From activism to journalism, Ankita Anand describes how life encounters helped shape her journey into the world of investigations. With a passion for listening and telling stories, she shares her thoughts on collaborating with a larger community of journalists and investigators.
I felt like whatever I was fearful of, changed when I started getting angry, because my anger, or being ill-treated, or anyone around me being ill-treated, was bigger and sharper and cut through the fear that I would feel of what the repercussions would be if I act or say something. I didn't have to fight fear because anger was already doing it for me.
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About the speaker
Ankita Anand is a journalist-writer-poet based in Delhi. She has been awarded the European Commission’s Lorenzo Natali Media Prize and Statesman Award for Rural Reporting. She specialises in long-form reporting (rural, urban and cross-border) with a focus on gender, labour, climate, environment, land, corruption, human rights and indigenous communities. She has also contributed to Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible Kit for investigators, including a guide on collaborative investigations. Currently she is an editor with Unbias the News
I grew up in a very North Indian feudal kind of household and when seeing that the meaning – the very skewed meaning of peace – is basically giving up on your rights.
My name is Ankita Anand. I'm an investigative journalist, also a part-time editor with Unbias the News. My focus is on a lot of social justice reporting, including corruption, environment, labour rights, indigenous communities, land rights. I do a lot of rural reporting, but also cross-border collaborations when I'm reporting. And I like to mix up a lot of genres and formats when working with people. The fact that I started out professionally being an activist has a lot to do with my gender and having seen gender inequality around me in my own home.
I remember things like my uncle was going to get married and I went with him for the shopping and there's this big brand called Raymond's. And I went with my uncle and he had to buy a tie and I loved writing so I even filled up the feedback section, et cetera, about their collection of ties and what a wide variety they presented to the customers. And I came back home, but I also left my address because there was a section for it. I wasn't aware enough about my privacy rights. So I left my address and my phone number there. And then I got some kind of a card about their sale going on or something. And the card was addressed to Mr. Ankita Anand. And then I felt like, I don't know anyone – Ankita’s not that unusual a name in India and I don't know of any guy who's named Ankita. But they just assumed that, you know, they have to –– like anyone who's written or anyone who's come to the shop. So I didn't really know of words like feminism, but I called them up, found their number. I was in the eighth grade. I called them up and I said, ‘why are you assuming that everyone is a man? And I'm not a guy, and you should have written Ms. And not Mr.’ So there was this kind of very low tolerance, or zero tolerance, towards injustice. And I was making do with these little tools, like letters to the editor and phone calls to tie shops that really shaped my desire to speak up. And like I said, it's always personal and not to let people get away with bad behaviour. I felt like –– I felt quite helpless a lot of times growing up because I felt I can't do – I can't get these men to change how they treat their partners or their mothers. But I felt like, okay, I will not be treated this way, and whenever I see things happening, I felt the urge to speak out and change that.
Before coming to Delhi, I was in a small town in the east of India, in the state of Jharkhand. And I was in Ranchi, and it's not like there weren't economic differences there, between people, but they weren't so vast. I had this pair of school shoes and I had a pair of shoes I could wear when I went out to any party or something. And then I saw this girl wearing her school shoes to a party, and I thought – I felt bad that, okay, some people don't have an extra pair of shoes. But that was pretty much it, or at least in my circle. And then when I came to Delhi, I saw these skyscrapers and big cars. And then all these people sleeping under the flyovers and being underpaid, construction work going on all around and people living in really bad conditions. So I felt like this is a huge gap and I can't just be in a cocoon and write about very specific things that would probably be relevant to a very small part of the society I live in. And so I felt I wanted to do something that's more relevant to a greater section of society. And I told my teachers that this is what I'm feeling, can you lead me to something, some group, I can work with? And they told me about a human rights group, a voluntary group, but everyone had their jobs. But they would get together and also pick up these issues, including labor issues. And I joined the group, and that actually was the first lesson in investigating, because they used to have these fact findings where some kind of human rights violation would be reported. And we would go there as a team. Like any investigator, they would cross check everything, talk to a lot of people. So that was –– I didn't realize that this is kind of going to be a part of my life later.
I really liked the fact that I could get so angry about so many things. Now I try to work through it because it’s not great for your mental health over a long period of time. But I felt like whatever I was fearful of changed when I started getting angry, because my anger or being ill-treated, or anyone around me being ill-treated, was bigger and sharper and cut through the fear that I would feel of what the repercussions would be if I act or say something. I didn't have to fight fear because anger was already doing it for me.
The investigation bit I think happened very organically when –– actually first only still submitting essays to this magazine that I first began writing for, and then the editor said, ‘why don't you also do a report for us?’ And my first longform report was on Africans living in Delhi. And there was – they were kind of easy targets for the police in some ways, because they had been stereotyped as people who engage in drugs and prostitution and all these, and politicians are kind of playing on those stereotypes to keep targeting these groups again and again. And I felt like this is not just a simple story of ‘how do you like living here’, but there's so much more to be revealed. So we don't want to be interviewed by you. So I felt like even a simple thing where people feel like there is no investigation to be done, because we already know how they are, actually involves an investigation because there are always layers to the human experience and to human behaviour. I now try to keep pockets of activism different in my world. Like, if I'm invited to do a street theatre workshop, or a poetry workshop, or a gender training, gender-sensitization workshop, I would – I feel like whatever is the activist inclination in me can be spent there, and then I can be more separate in my journalism. I mean, I'm extremely aware that I was an activist for so many years. So now I feel a bit wary of that same kind of identity coming in when I do my journalism. So I try to separate the two this way.
Being curious is definitely something that goes a long way in making a good investigator, because then one is actually finding things rather than just already stating what they have decided upon. Being a listener, being compassionate, being respectful of people's time and boundaries. Mostly people like to talk and they like to – like their stories to be told. So many nice people have asked me, ‘you are doing this, and we have been suffering all this – for so many years. What will we get talking to you? Why should we talk to you?’ And I have to say that I don't actually know, I'm writing this and publishing this. I hope more people get to know about this. I hope there is pressure in the long term, but actually cannot promise a certain result that will come out of this investigation. But I'm really interested in knowing your story. I think more people should know your story because they don't know about it. Once they feel like, you know, that they would be heard respectfully and patiently and not misquoted or misreported, mostly people are happy to talk, is what I have found in my experience. The kind of personality you end up having with these qualities often is not seen as the personality of an investigator, someone who's, you know, snappily asking questions one after the other. And this is – in a very hardcore way, is just really focused on the investigation and doesn't get tearful hearing people's stories. I mean, you can’t get soft doing these things, that has been the stereotype of an investigator. So I feel like having this kind of –– like being an introverted person, or really enjoying listening, has actually also helped me because people don't see me often as someone who has come to do harm. I think these were the qualities I have. And of course I'm learning a lot of other skills and qualities, but I feel like this kind of admitting my humanity and acknowledging the others has really helped me with all the investigations I've done so far.
I think one thing which really acts in my advantage is time. I often travel with just a one-way ticket and don't already decide my return. When I meet people, I say, ‘okay, tell me what time is good for you’. And they will say, ‘when do I have to go back?’ And I would say, ‘you tell me how much time you have, because I have time’. And they would take me to all sorts of things, to their family and some wedding is happening and ‘okay, you want to come to this wedding, you would meet people there’. And so many things could be relevant for the story. So many things could actually lead to other stories. So that is something I really enjoy, to go with a list of people I want to talk to, to go with these ten questions I definitely want to ask, but otherwise be really open to the shape it is taking, to the answers that are coming up to the questions I did not think of. So I would really ––I would have these questions, but I would really just listen to stories. And then once they're done speaking, then I would say, ‘okay, three new questions have just come up on the basis of what this person said’. So now I would ask those three questions and then eventually also the questions I went with.
I had actually gone to the state where there's a big section of indigenous population, and I was supposed to do a story on land grab, and I was tracing that story. And then this person who was my local contact said that ‘actually, you know, we already have all these stories of the exploitation of indigenous land and violation of forest rights, but there are also these stories of resistance and resilience – innovation – that you should look at’.
And there are these people who actually managed to save their village in the sense that their village was being turned into a municipality, which means you have to pay higher taxes, you lose control and rights over your land. But if it's a village it's much simpler. So how these people then kept fighting and they use their rights – especially the special rights indigenous people have over forest land – to keep pushing out the government's agenda. In the end of it, these villagers managed to push out this forced transformation that was actually costing them rather than making anything better. I could do the story because I didn't feel like I have to show them only in a certain light and as victims. And I had time and I was willing to travel. The community opened up to me more. I also did a lot of cultural stories because there was a very–– they felt there has been a very simplistic representation of their culture because they don't follow a lot of what goes on in cities. So the fact of spending so much time writing about their lives, other than as a people who are victims, but as people who are these safeguards so far as how they're–– how a lot of their cultural traditions actually make so much sense and also end up saving the environment, also end up protecting women's rights. That kind of open listening and spending time also helped me gain the community's trust and have access to more stories later.
I actually really like the concept of the forbidden stories project. I feel like if we do more and more of that, that is ensuring a safety net for journalists across the world, to say that killing this journalist or threatening this journalist and making them stop their work is not actually going to stop the investigation they were doing because there's a bunch of us who are going to follow up on the reporting that they did. The project started because a journalist who was doing an investigation got killed and then a bunch of journalists decided that they would carry forward her investigation, uh, not letting the idea or the findings die with her, so that the people who have – who did – assassinate her know that you cannot kill an idea or an investigation by killing a person. And that actually, something like that actually ensures the safety of journalists. Also, uh, you know, people who do cross-border investigations or when a team is working on an investigation, I'm inspired by them because then you are spreading out, like everyone is taking a tiny bit of risk rather than one person taking a big amount of risk upon themselves, and then getting killed in the process or getting injured to the extent that they can't carry on the investigation.
I'm also inspired because it made me rethink some of my own methods. I felt like I'm more comfortable working alone. I don't know if it's a good idea or to work in a band if I'm not compatible with these people, they have very different ethics. But these examples, and then also working with Tactical Tech and seeing the benefits of collaboration, I think I opened up more and more – or looking at Hostwriter, where they were encouraging collaborations and I felt like, maybe this is not such a bad thing and maybe I'm actually carrying a lot of risk and a lot of pressure to do everything on my own and getting disappointed also because I'm picking up these ambitious projects and it just spirals out of control and I'm leaving them half done. So it's better to have another partner. So all these, all these groups and projects that stressed a lot on collaboration made me rethink my own preference to working in solitude.
Cross-border collaborations are done in different ways when we are doing an investigation that concerns more than one country or the relationships between different countries, some of the relationships upfront and government documents and some of the relationships going on in kind of an underhand way. And that's when you decide that it would be good to collaborate with someone from that region, because I don't know that place or the details well enough, or if I just try to report something very quickly, there are certain dangers to parachuting that I would be misreporting. And I can't actually learn a whole lot about a country in two, three days. The problems are the risk, the slight risk you take in identifying a partner if you don't already have some kind of a colleague who you're comfortable with, or some journalist you've worked with in the past. Like, I've had an experience where someone just joined our team and he actually did no work in the team at all. And because this is, uh–– it was not–– things were not entirely in our control, we are also supported, being supported by other groups and we are accountable to them in terms of what is the work we are doing, so situations like this can become stressful. But I have done so many collaborations with people in different countries and I think the risks are fewer and the benefits are much more. You can't know everyone, you can't know a person really well on the first date kind of a thing. But then you don't take up something that is going to take maybe like one year or two years. Do something really small with them. So these are all–– they're not guarantees against problems, but there are these ways of minimizing the risks.
Now there are a lot of platforms that are, uh, quite dedicated to collaborations, like Hostwriter, journalismfund.eu, Project Facet, Clean Energy Wire, they're actually putting out grants, grant opportunities saying ‘we are going to fund groups’, or ‘we are going to fund a team that consists of a minimum of two members’. So they’re – so many of these organizations have realized the importance of collaborations, even in things like workshops or trainings, and sometimes people don't value these enough. And so much of it is just offered for free. So I think if we keep an open mind and just meet more people, more journalists – like I know so many journalists who are full-time staffers don't actually get time to go for trainings and fellowships. But if, as a freelancer one does have the time to be really open to things and also really knowing about your own skills and interests well.
Like I know so many times people don't go to something even though they want to, because they feel they are not qualified. So I keep telling them that if you are interested, you apply anyway and maybe they will, uh, you know, they will consider you because they like your work in another area. Like when I first started doing climate reporting, there was this fellowship that I applied for. Till then I had reported on the environment, but I had not done dedicated climate reporting. And I mentioned it in my application that this is something I've not done, but this is what I have done, and these are the work samples, and they accepted it. And I got a chance to do more climate reporting, meet other people who are doing that. It’s looking at your own skills from different perspectives that, you know, environment, climate they’re related.
The grants and fellowships that I get definitely have a huge impact on the work that I do as a freelancer in India, where a big number of media organizations actually pay, most of them pay very badly and it's not easy to sustain yourself and pay rent and your bills. I actually feel guilt because I talk to all these people and I don't know if I'm actually able to finish all these additional stories – maybe a couple I'm able to do, but I may not have the sustainability to do these additional five stories that I heard about, or I looked at when I went there, because there is this pressure on me to get the next chunk of money to take me through the next three or four months. So that definitely impacts my work and also my own satisfaction with the work that I'm doing. There's also a good number of people wanting to do it, but do not have the resources, or who are really passionate about investigations and they are just sent out into the field, exploiting that passion without any security, safety, anyone looking out for them and no follow ups are happening.
If I present a new idea, it's much more exciting for a grant giver. But if I say, I want to go back to the same place, it may be seen as, ‘oh, but this is already done. What is the new thing that you are offering?’ While as investigators, we may feel more satisfied going back to the same place and measuring impact or feeling more–– also more connected to our work. And we will also then be able to get more expertise on that subject, on that area, if more of such follow-ups are supported – I'm not saying it's not happening, but I think it's not happening enough – including in my own life, the initial enthusiasm of having created some impact where it's often, I feel like, I would like to see if it's still there or if the impact has now worn off and I need to do another round of investigation there.
A lot of the pitches that I send out end up having no response. It's easier to get rejections, so that you know, you can move on, but if you are not getting an answer it's hard to know if you should wait for a while, or if you should reach out to another publication. I know some investigators pitch simultaneously to four or five editors. As an editor, I just–– we published this story by a journalist who got it rejected forty times before we approved it and we chose it. Tough and, uh, the whole pitching process. Which is why then again, it's easier to do a longer project and get a grant or a fellowship, rather than just a one-on-one assignment, because then the hustling is just relentless. As an investigator, if you could just be focused and relax that, ‘okay, I've got this thing taken care of, I've got my income taken care of, and for this amount of time, I'm just going to focus on this’, it could become really easier. Last year I got a grant to do a project, which I had been pitching for – definitely not forty times, but I'd been pitching over five years.
The story of this woman who's unlettered, who's old. She's single, her husband died when she was quite young. And she's helping all these women fight domestic violence. She's encouraging them to go to court. She cannot read and write, but she has a good grasp of the court processes – what your rights are as a woman, what you can ask for as part of your husband's property. So she has all this knowledge and she has a lot of compassion to the extent that her phone number is written on the wall of her house outside and people actually call her even at 2:00 AM. So this was the story that he was pitching. I don't know if it didn't, uh, if it didn't catch attention because solutions are still not that big a thing in India, it's, it's picking up solutions journalism, but it's still not that big, or because domestic violence is such a rampant issue in India that something related to it does not seem very new.
At Unbias the News, what we are trying to do is, rather than looking for that perfect pitch, that kind of flawless articulation, we are really trying to look at ‘is there a story there that we would love to tell?’; work actually in collaboration with the journalists, rather than just have them submit and then do bits of proofing here and there and publish. So that's also a process that has allowed us to have more time with the journalists and have discussions with them, ask them to get something. If they can't get something, we will get it for them and we will interview a couple of people and add to the story because we feel like that's a great story that should be told. And if someone – whatever we can assist with – we are there to help with that, because it feels like these are also barriers to publishing.
The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.
Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.
Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.
Music by Wael Eskandar.
Sound effects by kevp888 used under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution licence and JordiF under a Creative Commons 3.0 Non-commercial Attribution licence, Additional sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.
Illustration by Ann Kiernan
This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)
This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.