Over the last week, Indian journalism has finally been forced to confront what has long been its dirty secret. Going by the numerous agonising accounts of women journalists, about some male colleagues and editors abusing power and crossing the line, it appears that sexual harassment is no media outlet’s exclusive story.
With such prevalence, testified credibly by many of our own, the need for introspection and corrective action is urgent.
While the rest of the country may have been left shocked by the disturbing allegations, from at least 10 women, aimed at veteran journalist — and now Minister of State for External Affairs — M.J. Akbar, not a single reporter, in all likelihood, batted an eyelid in newsrooms across the country. On Sunday, Mr. Akbar, who returned from a week-long trip to Africa, denied the allegations terming them “baseless” and said he would take legal action against accusers. A week after a flurry of allegations against him began emerging, the government and the Ministry of External Affairs continue to maintain deplorable silence, casting doubt on the likelihood of any process of inquiry.
For the brave women outing their past and present predator-colleagues or bosses, it cannot be easy. The incidents are bound to revive disturbing memories of being assaulted by power and toxic masculinity. Among those who have come forward, former Asian Age journalist Ghazala Wahab shared a distressing account from 1997, of being allegedly harassed by Mr. Akbar when she worked for him. Just as troubling was Ms. Wahab’s recollection of how her superiors, including senior women colleagues at the paper, responded to her account, saying it was “entirely her call”. As Ms. Wahab wrote, “I was alone, confused, helpless and extremely frightened.”
Nothing can be more disillusioning than this for a young journalist beginning her career with hope and idealism — and it should worry us that in 2018, across newsrooms, responses to such cases may not be very different. Which is why many women ultimately choose to leave their jobs, or seek employment elsewhere, when they confront inappropriate behaviour from their colleagues.
The Editors Guild of India, in a statement, said: “The newsroom in our profession is a relatively informal, free-spirited and hallowed space. It must be protected.” Many of us, journalists, too like to think of — and perhaps even romanticise — our workplaces as being sacred, liberal spaces unbound by constraints. Sadly, what these cases have shown is the exact opposite.
Understand the moment
Women journalists coming forward to put out their stories — when they have nothing to gain, and much to lose — has now triggered a long overdue self-reflection in Indian newsrooms. However, this is only the start. Naming and shaming perpetrators could be cathartic for the victims, but may not, by itself, lead to any radical change in the outmoded ways that many newsrooms still function.
Indian news organisations are by no means unique in being slow to crack down on inappropriate — in some instances, criminal — behaviour in their workspaces that still remain hostile for women. Yet newsrooms are faced with particular challenges.
Where do news organisations go from here? An obvious starting point is to implement, in earnest, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which superseded the earlier 1997 Vishakha guidelines. Further, we need to broaden our reading of the “workplace”, to include the field when a reporter travels with her colleague on assignment, or even a co-worker’s vehicle. Organisations must provide safe transport for women on late shifts. As the Network of Women in Media, India said in its statement, editors must ensure that stories are not privileged over the safety of their staff.
Second, there is an urgent need for effective internal complaint committees (ICCs). All journalists must be made aware of the ICC and the option to file a complaint there. While setting up these committees, organisations must be mindful of internal power structures that often load the dice in favour of those wielding more power.
The key word, however, is “effective”. Workplaces that foster environments that are hostile to women who speak up render an ICC meaningless. Very often, those who complain about their discomfort are readily branded “troublesome”, “fussy” or “thin-skinned”, discouraging others from raising similar concern. #Metoo is perhaps the antithesis of due process — but conversely, it is by strengthening due process that we can even begin to address this crisis institutionally.
Call out harassment
The spate of reactions from some (usually male) quarters to the allegations that have surfaced now, suggesting that the women “trivialise” more aggravated cases of sexual harassment involving physical violence, is a stark indication that we still have a long way to go in understanding what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. This, despite the fact that sexual harassment — even by law — is defined as not just “physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures” but also “making sexually coloured remarks” or “any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature”. Harassment comes in many forms and varying intensities. Dismissing some of it as “harmless flirting” or as “jest” trivialises the issue. Raising it doesn’t.
Without doubt, there is a need for proactive sensitisation, even within the “all-knowing” media. The 2013 Act lists organising regular workshops and awareness programmes as part of the employers’ duties. But Indian workplaces — not just newsrooms — are utterly inadequate on this front. As journalists with over a decade’s experience in different newsrooms and speaking to journalists across the breadth of the Indian media, our sense is that sensitisation is non-existent. Lewd jokes are commonplace in many newsrooms. So is misogyny.
In 2011, the Niira Radia tapes presented Indian journalism with a glorious opportunity to ask itself tough questions about the cosy proximity that mediapersons shared with the corporate world and the government. It failed to seize that chance. Many of those journalists have continued in their careers, the outrage long forgotten. For organisations, it soon became business as usual. Seven years later, #MeToo is posing an even more difficult question for Indian journalism. It presents an even greater opportunity for critical reflection and radical change.
The newsroom, for a lot of us, is a space for adrenaline rushes, fierce intellectual battles, excitement, learning and unlearning. Some of us inhabiting it shouldn’t have to be preoccupied with being wary and guarded with colleagues. Some of us shouldn’t feel less safe, and most importantly, some of us shouldn’t be made to feel less equal.
Are we going to let constraint and inhibition, caused by everyday anxiety at the workplace, take our collective focus off telling stories that matter and speaking truth to power?
We need healthy camaraderie in place of needless caution. Respect, not condescension. We would like colleagues to engage with us, not be patronising. And the fact that we are still having to demand these is telling. We do realise that the media world, after all, despite its many self-righteous claims, is not insulated from the larger, patriarchal world. But as journalists, if we are fundamentally bothered by discrimination in society, as we should be, there is a lot of cleaning up to do in our own backyards.
Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu’s correspondent in Sri Lanka. Ananth Krishnan is a Visiting Fellow at Brookings India and was formerly The Hindu’s correspondent in China