On Wednesday, Mathrubhumi News, a four-year-old popular Malayalam language television news channel, found itself in the spotlight after the police arrested a senior journalist employed with the organisation for alleged sexual harassment of his junior colleague in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
Amal Vishnudas, a senior news editor with the television channel, was arrested after his colleague complained to the Thiruvananthapuram city police commissioner. The police took Vishnudas into custody from Sasthamangalam in Thiruvananthapuram at noon, and he was arrested after being interrogated.
Vishnudas has been booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to rape, unnatural sex and criminal intimidation. The court remanded him in judicial custody for 14 days.
Sexual harassment at the workplace
The journalist’s arrest came at a time Mathrubhumi News has been relentlessly covering the recent arrest of leading Malayalam actor Dileep for the alleged sexual assault and abduction of a co-star in February, as well as the arrest of Congress MLA M Vincent on charges of rape.
The television channel is owned by Mathrubhumi, which publishes a newspaper with the same name – the second-largest circulated Malayalam daily.
On Wednesday, several people criticised the channel on social media for not cleaning up its stables before covering sexual harassment cases elsewhere. Social media was also abuzz with questions whether Mathrubhumi News would report or discuss Vishnudas’s arrest during its prime time debate, one of its top-rated shows.
However, that evening, popular news anchor Venu Balakrishnan opened his 9 pm show by announcing in his trademark aggressive style that the debate for the night would analyse six pertinent questions related to the subject of sexual harassment at the workplace. He, however, did not identify his arrested colleague throughout the one-hour show that featured activists, legal experts and a representative of Mathrubhumi News.
Balakrishnan said on the show that women are being harassed at home, public places and workplaces in Kerala. “We have no hesitation to state that media houses too have become unsafe places for women,” he said. “But we are not trivialising the issue by saying that it is common in all workplaces.”
He added: “We hope that the complaint raised by the woman journalist will help us take corrective measures. We believe that corrective measures should begin from the place of the complaint and that is why we decided to discuss this issue.”
Participating in the debate, the company’s human resources manager, G Anand, said that the woman in question had not complained to the management. “But we suspended Vishnudas from service pending inquiry immediately after we came to know about the police case against him,” he said.
Anand claimed that Mathrubhumi was the first media organisation in Kerala to adopt the Vishaka guidelines in 1997, and constitute an internal complaints committee. These guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace were laid down by the Supreme Court in a 1997 judgement pending the enactment of a law. This law came in 2013, when Parliament passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.
Activist P Geetha, who participated in the debate, asked why the company limited the punishment to suspension. Anand responded, saying that the management wanted to hear versions from both parties before taking further action.
Social media bouquets
The debate won Mathrubhumi News appreciation from all quarters, including social media.
Popular Malayalam blogger, Basheer Vallikkunnu wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that the television channel had given him a pleasant surprise. Earlier in the day, Vallikkunnu had addressed six questions to Balakrishnan as he expected the television channel would keep the issue under wraps.
After the the show, Vallikkunnu wrote:
“Mathrubhumi News has set a welcome precedent. It is not clear whether it heeded the suggestions from the social media, but the discussion has gone a long way in establishing its credibility. I congratulate Mathrubhumi News, and withdraw my earlier post.”
Mathrubhumi News did not respond to requests by Scroll.in to comment on the issue. Text messages and phone calls to chief of news Unni Balakarishnan and prime time show anchor Venu Balakrishnan went unanswered.
In her complaint, the journalist accused Vishnudas of sexually harassing her for one-and-a-half-years.
The complaint read: “He lured me into the relationship after citing his troubled married life. He had sexually assaulted me in his car and in the office lift and engaged in ‘phone sex’ during night shifts.”
According to the complaint, the relationship between the two became strained after Vishnudas refused to marry her. “When I told him that I would reveal my experience to the management, he threatened me with dire consequences,” the complainant said.