As women journalists shake up the Indian media by documenting workplace sexual harassment in what has been called India’s #MeToo movement, there are a few voices conspicuously missing. Among them are the voices of beat correspondents. These are the women who are assigned to cover beats like crime, governance, politics, civic bodies and entertainment, and report on them for both broadcast and print media.
Women who cover news beats on a daily basis witness harassment on two levels – one in which the perpetrator happens to be an officer or a politician connected to that beat, and the other in which the harassment is caused by men who report on the same beat, according to several women beat correspondents across cities who spoke to Scroll.in on Wednesday. They all work in the English-language media.
“In the Delhi Police, there is a senior official who takes special interest in the personal lives of women reporters and keeps asking them questions that make them feel uncomfortable,” said a correspondent, with a news channel, who requested anonymity. “One of his favourite questions is: ‘When are you getting married?’ If the reporter says she does not know, his next question is ready: ‘Why don’t you get married?’ And that is followed by compliments on her attire and appearance.”
She added: “There are officers who ask women journalists out on dates. There are a few women who cover the crime beat for Hindi papers and channels. Some officers are known to look at them as easy prey.”
Another woman correspondent, who works with a Delhi-based news outlet, said that this particular Delhi Police officer, who is in his late 50s, had harassed her, mostly via text messages. “The texts were all about when I would get married,” she said. “On one occasion he [called her and] said he would have married me if he was unmarried. I hung up and stopped meeting him.”
She added: “In another instance, an officer of Additional DCP [deputy commissioner of police]-rank hugged me in his office and tried to kiss me. I had to run away. He, however, had the audacity to text me that same day asking me which perfume I use. I sent him a stern text message and never met him again.”
A reporter who works with a TV channel in Mumbai said that women on the politics beat were also quite vulnerable to sexual harassment. “The personal assistants of politicians are known to be the most notorious of the lot,” she said. “If you are in charge of a political party or a ministry as a beat reporter, you have to keep in touch with the personal assistants of politicians. There is a professional cost in avoiding them and most editors do not understand that.”
Narrating her experience with the personal assistant of a current Union minister, she said: “He would call me around midnight and start with light conversation. Then it would slowly become intense, and he would say he wanted to meet me at that odd hour. The next morning, at his office, he would act like he is meeting me for the first time.”
Male colleagues and male journalists on the same beat have also been accused of harassment. “Officers can still be avoided in a beat but how do you avoid being in the presence of other reporters in the same beat for different outlets?” asked a correspondent who works with an English daily in Delhi. “They frequent the media centres in the same offices and we often run into each other.”
This correspondent has had two bad experiences – one at the hands of a police constable and the other by a fellow journalist.
The first happened five years ago when she was a cub reporter and a constable posted in Delhi’s Mansarovar Park Police Station started to stalk her. After she complained about him to a senior official, the constable was sent on a punishment posting. “But he later quit his job, left the city and still keeps calling me,” she said. “As I keep blocking unknown numbers one after another, he keeps using new ones. The last time I complained about him, one of his calls was traced to Bengaluru but he could not be tracked down. He has a pattern, he only calls after 10 pm, once he is drunk. I have now stopped receiving calls from unknown numbers afters 10 pm.”
She said that the second experience – at the hands of a journalist who headed the crime bureau of a Hindi newspaper in Delhi – was more upsetting. “His offer was more direct – sleep with me and I shall make you a star,” she said. “When I rejected his overtures, he started talking about his unhappy married life and how he could leave his wife to marry me. When I blocked his phone number, he started calling up my colleagues and friends, trying to use them as messengers. He stopped only when I, along with some friends, met him and told him that we would lodge a police complaint against him if he did not stop harassing me.”
Indore’s only woman crime reporter, who requested not to be identified by name, said that government and police officials in the city were fine. “But the men on the news beats are big time misogynists and very often have spread indecent rumours about me,” she said. “If you expose them on social media, you will end up fighting them and left with no time to do your job.”
A correspondent working in Pune said that in bigger cities, such as Mumbai, women covering a beat at least have a voice. That was not the case in smaller cities like Pune, she said. “Women journalists are few and if any of us try to expose a senior official in police or government, the men reporters are most likely to gang up with the officer and start a slander campaign against the woman,” she said. “This attitude is very visible, though such cases rarely come to light.”
Another reporter based in Pune said, “Beat reporters face such rampant sexual harassment that they start normalising it with time. Many of them come from small cities and they have to struggle in bigger cities. This struggle demands that they choose their battles for survival – a process in which sexual harassment at the workplace gets pushed under the carpet.”
Reliving the trauma
Calling out perpetrators on social media in an attempt to deter them, does not always work, said a reporter with a TV channel.
“Once you call out someone on social media, how do you then deal with the people who come to you looking out for gossip?” she asked. “They are the people, mostly other reporters in the beat, who we run into every day at the headquarters of our beats, or cabins of [government] officers who often entertain reporters. The more they ask us about the trauma, the more they make us relive it time and again.”
In Delhi, a reporter who covers politics for a news channel recently narrated her sexual harassment ordeal on social media without identifying the perpetrator. Soon, other reporters in the beat convinced her to disclose the identity of the accused man. The reporter did, and this soon reached reporters covering other beats in the city.
“The details of her case were already known and now that the identity of the perpetrator was known to journalists, wild gossip started to do the rounds,” said a Delhi-based reporter. “It is more so because the officer already had a bad past record known only within whisper networks. But in the process, it is the woman reporter who was traumatised.”
The costs of being seen as a troublemaker
As is well known, pushing back against harassment from male colleagues can have repercussions. “If he is a senior, the cost of saying ‘No’ to him leads to mental harassment which can range from cancellation of legitimate leave to being assigned work not related to the job,” said a Mumbai-based reporter.
For instance, a man who heads the entertainment supplement of a newspaper in Delhi is known for offering unwanted shoulder massages to his colleagues when he is in a pleasant mood, and throwing things at them when he is angry, said two women who have worked with him. But they add that there is not much they can do about it.
“Things become very difficult when you come from a small town, are not financially sound and are too dependent on your job,” said one of the women. “It is not really an easy choice. I appreciate the journalists who have exposed such perpetrators in the industry but I was never in a position to do so. I am still not”
The other reporter added: “Things get difficult once you are branded as a troublemaker. Even in a city like Delhi, reporting is a very small network and jobs in the mainstream media are limited. Today you move to another office, tomorrow you may need to approach the same editor for a job. Beat reporters who belong to unprivileged backgrounds do not have the freedom to expose their harassers.”