Q&A: Corps Member Aarefa Johari

Aarefa Johari is a journalist covering work and gender for Scroll.in through Report for the World. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Report for the World Corps Member Aarefa Johari with Scroll.in

What led you to become a journalist? 

I wanted to be a journalist since I was 10 or 11. Initially it was because I love writing and wanted to pursue a profession that involves writing. But of course, as I grew older, I also wanted to be able to write about issues that matter – about inequalities, social justice, people’s achievements and more. 

What inspired your interest in covering gender, culture, communities and urban development? 

Communities and culture were the first beats I had the opportunity to cover when I began my reporting career, and I came to love exploring the lesser known sides of a variety of different communities in my region. I was able to highlight, in my reports, the inner workings of religious, social and cultural groups, their achievements, problems of prejudice and discrimination within and between them, and inspiring stories of those who were standing up to discrimination. 

I began covering urban development two years into my career when my editor suggested it. In a city like Mumbai, which is such a mess in terms of urban planning, I found it exciting – and frustrating – to cover the consistently poor decisions being made by city and state authorities, their impact on city residents, the marginalization of some classes of residents as opposed to others and the work of urban planners who are doing so much to mitigate damage and get the authorities to see sense. 

As a feminist, I have inevitably applied the gender lens to almost everything I have covered over the years, so I am really glad to be formally covering it as my beat now.        

What are the specific challenges for journalists in your region of India? How easy or difficult has it been to cultivate sources on your beat?

As an urban, English-language journalist in one of India’s largest metropolises, I obviously enjoy a lot of privileges and protections that reporters in smaller towns and rural regions do not. Reporting can often be far more dangerous for them. But as an urban journalist, I also don’t always have immediate access to the local concerns of communities in those regions. Organizing field work outside of the city has often been dependent on budgets and the help of local rural journalists. 

Regarding cultivating sources, it is not too difficult. Work, or labor, is one of my main beats, and it is easy to connect with organized labour unions. However, connecting with workers in completely unorganized, informal sectors can be challenging.  

As a journalist with a fearless, independent publication, I am serving my society by doing my job: documenting some of what is going on around us as our democracy becomes more vulnerable every day.

What has it been like reporting for Scroll.in? How is it distinct from your experiences in other newsrooms?

Scroll.in is one of the few independent media organizations in India today, and it is an absolute privilege to work for it. I joined Scroll.in as a full-time reporter for several years soon after it was launched and moved to a part-time position in 2019. With Report for the World, I am now back to full-time work. I had worked for four years at a mainstream print daily before, and as valuable as that experience was, there were some things that reporters and editors could not write about. When I joined Scroll, I realized how much self-censorship I had unconsciously imbibed while working for mainstream media, and it has been empowering to work with an independent digital publication that is not afraid to speak truth to power. 

What has been the greatest challenge you have overcome as a reporter?

I’m very much an introvert, so the most challenging thing about my job has always been mustering up the courage to speak to new people! 

What is your perception of international coverage of work and gender issues in India and how does it compare to your experience covering it as an Indian journalist?

International – Western – media coverage on these issues has been alright, particularly in the reputed publications, but sometimes it can be a bit reductive. For instance, after the 2013 gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, India was repeatedly labelled as the “rape capital of the world” in international media. While we cannot deny the widespread prevalence of sexual violence in the country, such labelling promotes prejudice, fear and discrimination. 

What have you found to be the most impactful story you have written so far as a Report for the World corps member?

Since we write long, narrative pieces as corps members at Scroll, only a couple of my Common Ground reports have been published so far. For me, the most impactful story has been writing about India’s biggest offshore tragedy that took place in the Arabian Sea during Cyclone Tauktae in May 2021: Two vessels working for a government-owned oil company capsized, killing 86 people, most of them contract-based workers. The accident was entirely preventable and took place because several officials ignored weather warnings in a bid to prioritize profits, and endangered the lives of hundreds of workers in their charge. My report investigated the decision-making that led to this disaster. 

Oftentimes there is a detail in a story that doesn’t make the cut for final publication, but nonetheless sticks with you. Was there such a detail in the process of reporting this story?

There were quite a few such details. For example, officials in various companies involved in the offshore project expressed, off the record, some rather callous attitudes towards the workers who lost their lives and those who survived. And it was heartbreaking to learn that some survivors were afraid to be interviewed for fear of losing months of pending wages that the companies contracting them were yet to pay. 

How are you tangibly serving Indian society?

As a journalist with a fearless, independent publication, I am serving my society by doing my job: documenting some of what is going on around us as our democracy becomes more vulnerable every day.