As women journalists shake up the Indian media by documenting workplace sexual harassment, one voice is conspicuously missing: that of women journalists in the Hindi media.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect in the world of Hindi-language journalism. Several women journalists at Hindi news organisations said the working culture is probably more toxic than in the English media. If they are keeping silent, these journalists added, it means they are attempting to ensure that they will survive in the profession.

“Men in the Hindi media are lecherous to their core,” said Manisha Pandey, an editor with News 18. “It is a male bastion where women are neither considered intelligent nor capable of handling anything creative. All the soft beats are usually assigned to women. It’s a cultural and societal problem of the Hindi belt which reflects in these newsrooms.”

Swati Arjun, a senior journalist who has worked across print, TV and online media, claimed there is a “culture of rampant harassment” in Hindi newsrooms, and the people in authority who are supposed to support vulnerable women employees often either turn a blind eye or side with the harassers.

The worst are TV newsrooms, where men in positions of power routinely get away with harassing women despite complaints, Arjun said. “I joined this Hindi convergence wing of a leading channel based in Delhi and came to know of this manager who would ask women colleagues to call him late at night to discuss their shifts,” she said. “In the office, he would ask women to bring him coffee in his cabin. I found it very humiliating. Many women did it just to protect their jobs. I did not which led to him harassing me.”

She was made to work long hours and not allowed to take a day off for weeks, pushing her to the brink of a breakdown. She approached a human resources manager, a woman, with her complaint but to no avail. “She said, ‘If your superior is not happy then there is no point to anything’,” Arjun said. “I told him the superior’s behaviour was sexist to which he replied, ‘But there’s no mention of sexual harassment in your complaint.’ I was shocked.”

The harassment only intensified thereafter, Arjun claimed. Not long after, she was diagnosed with chronic depression that kept her out of work for nearly two years. “I was just too scared to get into newsrooms,” she said.

It was years before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013 mandated the formation of internal complaints committees, Arjun said, and the editors would often hush up such matters. “They would pretend as if nothing had happened and often say that boys will be boys,” she added. “It would sicken me.”

‘What’s the point?’

Six leading Hindi newspapers told they each have an internal complaints committee to address workplace harassment. But a woman journalist with a leading Hindi daily in Delhi said sexual harassment is rampant, committees notwithstanding. She knows of a young journalist who was stalked by her married editor. “Too scared to tell her story, she left the job to escape the harassment,” she said.

She has herself faced harassment. “This senior editor was known for touching women inappropriately and cracking cheap jokes but no one dared question him since he could have found a way to sack that person,” she recalled. “He once came and asked me to accompany him on some tour that he said would change my life. I told him off.”

But the situation is “changing for good” as women are asserting their rights, she said. “Men can no longer say I was just joking, their favourite line in such situations,” she added. “Women are now aware of the Vishakha guidelines and committees that are there to protect them.”

That is probably true only of women journalists in big cities. For those working in male-dominated newsrooms in small cities, the primary concern is “just survival”, said a woman journalist based in Bhopal. “I worked with a Hindi channel in the city and my editor started touching me inappropriately and frequently commenting on my clothes,” he said. “It was creepy and disgusting. Fed up of his lecherous ways, I asked him to comment only on my stories and not my dress. His ego was hurt and that was the beginning of my harassment.”

The editor would always criticise her work and even publicly lash out at her for not meeting the standards of her male colleagues, she said. This continued till she turned up to work one day and was told by the security guard, “There is no need to go inside. You have been fired.”

She still went in and confronted the editor. He said she had been fired for acting “too smart”. “I was aghast and had no one speak in my support,” she said. “I did file a legal case against the editor but then I got a new job and I thought what is the point.”

A fellow journalist she knows had it worse. She was allegedly sexually abused by the editor of a leading newspaper and forced to leave town when she tried speaking out. “The editors in Bhopal are well-connected and have deep links with politicians,” the TV journalist said. “If someone does decide to speak up, all sorts of pressure tactics are used to silence her.”

She claimed Hindi media houses usually do not help their women employees get accreditation from the government, thereby depriving them of certain benefits such as state insurance. “Women here cannot even exercise their basic rights and you are talking about MeToo,” she said. “It is a very urban phenomenon. We are paid half what male colleagues make and we can’t even negotiate our own salaries.”

More than harassment, the journalist said, she is worried about keeping her job. Now that the code of conduct for the impending election in Madhya Pradesh has come into effect, the government must cut down on advertisements in the media. “Many media people will be fired to curtail expenditure,” she said. “Despite having 15 years of experience, I am not sure I will have this job by the end of the election.”

‘No future prospects’

Suman Gupta, resident editor of Jan Morcha newspaper in Uttar Pradesh, said a movement like MeToo is “unthinkable” in her state. “First, there are hardly any women journalists in Hindi print media,” she explained. “Ours is a feudal state where political reform has happened but social reform is non-existent. Women are not encouraged to join the media. There is no space for women in Hindi print media here.”

Recently, Gupta was asked to compile a list of women journalists working in Faziabad and adjoining districts for a work project. She could not find any.

Compared to the print media, there are far more women in Hindi broadcast media, thanks to the mushrooming of regional channels over the past few years. “Women’s representation in TV newsrooms did go up but it didn’t result in empowerment,” argued Pandey. “They became the face of these channels and yet received lesser remuneration than their male counterparts.”

As far sexual harassment, Pandey said, it is “never taken seriously and it is usually the woman who is blamed”.

“Forced into a corner, she will have no choice but to resign,” said the journalist in Bhopal. “The sad part is that someone else will replace her immediately. The new recruit will be told how the previous employee started creating trouble and was fired. This will ensure she falls in line.”

It does not help that most women journalists in small cities and towns “do not come from upper class privileged backgrounds”, said Pandey. “They don’t have options or other future prospects,” she added. “Those writing in English can still do a lot of other things. Have you ever heard that some Hindi journalist quit her job and went to study abroad? No, it doesn’t happen. Ever wondered why?”