As the MeToo movement sweeps India, it is revealing a wide disparity between the national media and the regional press in terms of working cultures, and how structures of accountability and impunity operate. Unlike their national media counterparts, many women journalists at vernacular media houses in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala said they cannot even speak out about workplace harassment, let alone file formal complaints. In fact, barely any of these organisations has an internal complaints committee. Where it exists, it generally does not function.

In 2003, when Jeya Rani wanted to file a sexual harassment complaint against a male colleague at a leading Tamil magazine, she found there was no internal body she could formally approach. It was nearly a decade before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, mandated the formation of internal complaints committees. So, she went to the Network of Women in Media, which asked her employer to form a committee and conduct an enquiry. It was the first internal complaints committee in Tamil language media. “The enquiry went on for three years,” Jeya Rani recalled, adding it was the “most harrowing period” of her life.

Jeya Rani wanted to submit a written complaint, but was told to complain verbally to her superior, who then warned the alleged harasser. In retaliation, the man filed a written complaint against her to the chief editor. In his case, the management acted urgently and moved Jeya Rani out of her department. When she asked for the reason, they claimed, without evidence, that she had misbehaved with the man, she said. It was then she approached the Network of Women in Media.

In the three years it took to conduct the enquiry, Jeya Rani said, she was isolated by her colleagues and barely anybody spoke to her. She was only given non-journalistic work while her alleged harasser was left “free and happy”. “The situation compelled me to resign,” she said. “But I continued to fight the case. The enquiry wasn’t smooth. I was humiliated during every hearing. They had fake complaints filed against me from inside and outside the office. The whole office turned against me. They either stayed silent or were on the other side. Since I had all the evidences to prove him guilty, he was made to leave after three years.”

It takes much courage to fight against sexual harassment at workplace, Jeya Rani said, since it involves one’s dignity, job security, income, social relationships and career. “All this would be threatened if you raise your voice,” she said. “That is why many women working in Tamil media remain silent.”

‘Branded a troublemaker’

In South India, few women work in regional news organisations and fewer still in the print media. This makes it difficult for them to speak out. “They can’t afford to outrage,” said Kavitha Muralidharan, an independent journalist. “The moment a woman raises a complaint, she is branded a troublemaker.”

They often do not even know what to do if they are sexually harassed by their “colleagues or seniors or while they are at work”, Muralidharan said, adding. “No training is given to them about what to do. There is a lack of awareness among young journalists.”

R Priya, a broadcast journalist in Tamil Nadu, said lack of awareness is indeed a major problem. “I have 12 years of experience working in the media,” she said. “I was not even aware there was an internal complaints committee at either of the two Tamil news channels I have worked with. They never informed women employees about it.”

In the Kannada media, many women are from rural and underprivileged backgrounds. This is partly why even senior journalists do not speak out against harassment, said DS Shamantha, president of the Sarathi Resource Centre for Community, which runs community radio stations in several parts of rural Karnataka. “In such circumstances, we cannot expect mid-level and junior women journalists to come forward to raise the issues,” she said.

Shamantha was one of the first women in the Kannada media to file a sexual harassment complaint against a colleague in the late 1990s. A film reporter at the time, she complained to the Film Journalists Association. Her complaint was handled by the writer and journalist Vijaya and the harasser was warned informally. She knows two women who had to quit their jobs at leading Kannada newspapers because of sexual harassment. “This is enough to explain how the system works,” she said.

Complaining against sexual harassment is harder when the victim has no physical evidence as would be the case if they face verbal abuse, obscene gestures and remarks.

A 48-eight-year old woman journalist in Hyderabad, who would only speak anonymously, recalled that her former bureau chief would not allow her to take leave. “He would say he would miss seeing me if I went on leave,” she said.

She complained to the deputy editor, who warned the bureau chief. But the harassment continued, though “in different forms”. “I was moved from the headquarters to a regional office, which was like a demotion,” she explained. “After that, the bureau chief started introducing mistakes into stories that I had edited and changing the content before they went to print.”

Realising this, she started taking printouts of her stories before leaving office. “When the editor questioned me about the mistakes, I had the proof to show him that the mistakes were introduced in revised versions for which I was not responsible.”

Still, she claimed, the harassment continued for three more years. She was not given a promotion or a salary hike. She eventually quit for a local newspaper.

Women just quit’

In Andhra Pradesh, there are just two women reporters across 25 regional news organisations, said C Vanaja, an independent journalist and member of the Network for Women in Media. “The top three newspapers have internal complaints committees but there’s no system in place in other organisations for women to approach,” she added. “In most cases, women just leave their jobs when they are sexually harassed.”

It is not much different in the Malayalam media, said KK Shahina, associate editor with the Open magazine. Young women journalists are reluctant to talk about harassment for fear of being discriminated against and targeted. “The options for women working in regional media are limited,” she said. “Though women face sexual harassment at workplace, not many come out in Kerala. The state government has set up a panel to look into the problems of working women journalists.”

Jisha Elizabeth, a sub editor with the Madhyamam newspaper and executive member of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, Thiruvananthapuram, pointed out that most Malayalam news organisations do not have complaints committees. A few that do have have not informed their women employees about the panels, their composition, and how to approach them. “So it isn’t easy to file a complaint of sexual harassment,” she said. “If I have such a complaint, I have to go to a police station.”

Any woman seeking to file a complaint must go through “pressure zones”, which have deterred some of her own friends from reporting harassment over the years, Elizabeth said. They just quit their jobs instead.

“Women have to hear sexist comments and if they file a complaint, they can no longer work in the same newsroom,” Elizabeth said. “They will not get a job in any other company either because the gossip circle gets activated. Any organisation would be reluctant to hire her fearing she might file complaint against them as well.”

A way out of this morass is for government to set up “appellate committees” with judicial powers and comprising members who are dedicated to women’s welfare and “not influenced by the corporate media”, Elizabeth said, adding, “This committee must be a mediator between women journalists and media firms.”

She also called for giving women journalists, particularly in the vernacular media, reservation in promotions so they reach higher positions and help create women-friendly workplaces. contacted the leading Tamil newspaper Dinamalar and the Kannada daily Udayavani – which both have an internal complaints committeeto understand their mechanisms for dealing with harassment complaints. While Dinamalar said this was “internal information”, Udayavani officials did not respond to repeated calls.