The large and growing number of allegations of sexual harassment and assault that women journalists have made over the last week on social media against male journalists is an indictment of the deep-rooted sexism in media organisations across the country and their failure to protect women employees.
The allegations range from decades-old incidents to those that have occurred in the past year. Many women have named the perpetrators, others have described incidents without naming the perpetrators and many more have described their experiences of harassment and assault while remaining anonymous.
Among the most egregious complaints are those of senior male editors harassing junior women employees. At least eight women journalists have accused former editor, MJ Akbar, now minister in the Union government, of sexual harassing them. Journalist Ghazala Wahab wrote a detailed account in The Wire about Akbar’s predatory behaviour, which extended to forcibly groping and kissing her.
More than one journalist described being assaulted by senior journalist Gautam Adhikari who was the former editor-in-chief of DNA in Mumbai. One of these complaints was made by journalism professor Sonora Jha who recounted how Adhikari allegedly assaulted her in 1995 when she was Bengaluru bureau chief with The Times of India and he was executive editor. Jha said that when she raised a complaint, she was told that Adhikari had asked for her to be sidelined at work. Adhikari has responded to the allegations saying that he has no recollection of the incidents he has been accused of.
There have been at least four accounts of sexual harassment by KR Sreenivas who is currently the resident editor at The Times of India in Hyderabad that range from inappropriately touching younger women journalists to suggestive comments and text messages. Sreenivas issued a statement saying that he will submit himself to an investigation by a committee on sexual harassment at the newspaper. Since then, seven women have written to The Times of India accusing him of sexual harassment and asking that his employment be terminated.
Journalist and lawyer Avantika Mehta named former Hindustan Times colleague Prashant Jha online for sending inappropriate texts. On Monday, Jha stepped down from his position as Hindustan Times’ politics editor and Delhi bureau chief.
Many allegations have also been leveled at younger, less-senior male journalists from inappropriate remarks and messages to verbal abuse to physical assault.
Bro codes and cultures of silence
What has allowed such widespread harassment of women in media organisations? Several women journalists referred to a “bro code” that allow for an informal understanding that makes sexist behaviour by men acceptable, and sometimes even the norm.
“The bro culture is very prevalent because these guys who harass women outright, or make advances or who are forever looking for opportunities with their junior colleagues work in an environment where a lot of men do the same thing, including senior male colleagues,” said Dhanya Rajendran, editor-in-chief of The News Minute.
This leads to a quid pro quo among groups of male journalists who indulge in such behaviour.
“The quid pro quo is huge because many of these men have skeletons in the closet,” said Sandhya Menon, a freelance journalist who called out her former senior colleagues Adhikari and Sreenivas for sexual harassment. “Even with men who have not done anything obviously creepy or assaulted anyone, there may have been interactions where the area is grey. So nobody wants to call another man out.”
This norm of men keeping each other’s secrets, the women journalists say, not only perpetuates a culture of silence it also makes them dissuade women from making complaints.
“Many young journalists have messaged me from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the last couple of days saying that there has been trouble with their editors, or someone they have been sent to interview has misbehaved with them, but the organisation doesn’t stand by them,” said Rajendran. “If they complain, the atmosphere around them becomes vicious.”
The silent signal to women in many newsrooms is that if they complain about harassment, their careers will take a hit.
“Women don’t want setbacks in their careers and a lot of us come from families who need our support,” said Menon. “When you are up against that, you weigh it and you take it in your stride. You don’t want to be seen as the person who cannot handle these things. So what women do is, at the most, talk to their colleagues and talk to their friends and everyone steers clear of the perpetrator.”
Before the Vishaka judgment that led to the first guidelines on workplace sexual harassment in 1997, women did not have the language to address the problem, said Kalpana Sharma, an independent journalist in Mumbai. “Women’s presence in the newsroom was also much less than it is now. When you are young, you don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker. We were told to forget sexual harassment as an occupational hazard.”
The indispensable male journalist?
Yet another factor that plays against women in media organisations is the perceived value of a male journalist to the company, said Rajendran.
“In a lot of cases, because the man is considered indispensable, the woman who complains of harassment gets sidelined,” she said. “I know a woman who complained against a man who would not be fired. She needed the job and so finally she got a transfer to another bureau because she could not co-exist with him in the same office. So newsrooms have created this atmosphere where the signal to the woman is that if something happens she is the one who has to move out and the guy can just carry on as usual.”
A senior journalist in Delhi said that even though women working in the English media are better off than in those working non-English media organisations, they had to face inherent sexism. “The more problematic area is the sexism that is structural in every media organisation. How many women editors do you see? Even for women who break the glass ceiling, you are surrounded by men.”
She described how at one job she was the only woman head of a department in what is considered the core area of the newspaper. “There were women heading features, fashion and health supplement and the design head was a woman. But the edit page, news desk, executive editor, editor, editorial page, op-ed page, sports editor and business editor were the people who came for the morning meeting and they were all men.”
But even with all these problems, women reporters have more agency than other women employees in media organisations. “People in ancillary jobs in newsrooms like secretaries or typists or receptionists are still vulnerable and more hesitant to speak out,” said Sharma.
Ineffectual internal committees
The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention and Prohibition) Act, 2013 mandates setting up Internal Committees in workplaces with more than 10 employees to hear complaints of sexual harassment. A committee is required to be headed by a senior woman, to have women in at least half its positions and an external woman expert in law or women’s rights.
However, the unique nature of media houses as workplaces throws up several challenges to the functioning of Internal Committees. “A lot of work happens outside the walls of an office, and outside what are considered regular ‘working hours’,” said Laxmi Murthy, a journalist in Bangalore who conducts research and training on gender and the media, in an email to Scroll.in. “Reporters and photographers on assignment have fluid timings, and work in the field at odd hours. The job itself necessitates interacting with a large range of sources and interviewees, and sexual harassment in these situations is difficult to deal with, as third parties often refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the internal committees of media houses.”
As workplaces become more diffused with people working remotely and online, the treatment of sexual harassment cases has become more complex.
“People are part of an organisation but are interacting in cyberspace,” said Rina Mukherjee who fought a legal case under labour laws for 10 years after she was fired from The Statesman in 2002 for raising a sexual harassment complaint. “A diffused workplace needs to be defined better in the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act.”
There was no Internal Complaints Committee at The Statesman at the time of Mukherjee’s complaint and when one was constituted in 2003, it refused to take up her case.
There is no consolidated data on how many news organisations have Internal Committees but anecdotally and on the basis of smaller studies, it is clear that the number is very low, said Murthy.
Who knows where to complain?
“Even if some of the larger media houses have set up the mandatory committees, they are often centralised, making them inaccessible to women staff in the several editions across the country,” said Murthy. “Stringers and correspondents also find it difficult to access the committees. There is very little awareness among media employees about whether or not a mechanism exists, what the procedures are and who exactly to complain to.”
Menon corroborates this with her own experience in news organisations 10 years ago. “From women between the ages of 21 to as far as 28, we had no idea of procedures and process. When we came in no one tells us. In any of the jobs that I went to, I don’t remember a single email coming in that said this is how you must expect men to behave and if anyone oversteps the line this is your next step.”
In general, Murthy pointed out, internal committees are not accessible and empathetic to women complainants and are often bureaucratic and quasi-judicial. While idea of having an internal committee of members of staff was to encourage staff to participate in creating a conducive workplace, the same coteries and hierarchies that operate in a workplace also operate through the committee.
“Having an external member is not a safeguard against bias and anti-women attitudes, because the external member is often one that weighs in on the side of the management and/or the accused,” she said. “Confidentiality is also a serious issue, especially in smaller organisations, and complainants are often isolated due to breach in confidentiality.”
Said Sharma: “If companies are really interested in making it work, they will make an effort to choose people who are also interested in making it work. It cannot be mandated, of course, but it is indicative of the willingness of media houses to create a safe work environment.”
Note: Scroll’s internal complaints committee was first formed, and announced in an office meeting, in mid-2015. This was committed in writing along with a policy on sexual harassment, made available to all employees, in February 2017. We are strengthening our processes and working on improving communication and trainings.