Saturday, December 28, 2013

Our Own Tejpals

Women journalists' safety

Big names in journalism often go to jail for big causes, typically to defend freedom. Some even consider a prison term as the confirmation of a career fulfilled, a laurel on the head.

Rarely are there cases that have the trappings of a hero, but a storyline that eventually turns tragicomic, highlighting a journalist’s fall from grace. The saga of the celebrated Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal is one such episode.

The founder and editor of Tehelka, India’s leading public-interest investigative newsmagazine, was arrested recently for sexually molesting a young female reporter. Tejpal is in judicial custody, and if convicted, could be jailed for at least 10 years.

This is not a case of merely an “alleged” assault. Although Tejpal now maintains it was a consensual act, he has admitted that he went too far in his sexual advances. It’s a cruel irony for a man who has in the past presided over a series of investigative stories highlighting sexual assaults in India.

The uproar has reverberated through our media as well. To many liberal-minded Nepalis, Tejpal was a respectable example of Indian journalism, symbolizing the resurgence of a crusading conscience of the profession at a time his country’s media were fast turning into publicists. As a novelist, he is familiar here among literary circles as well.

What is remarkable is the incredible courage of the victim to come forward. Past incidents indicate that the perpetrators are almost always familiar (male) faces; they are co-workers, supervisors, bosses and news sources; and, for fear of reprisal, losing the job, social stigma, or denial of justice, most victims remain silent.

In a global survey carried out between July-November 2013 by the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), over 46 percent women journalists reported sexual harassment in the course of work, in the form of unwanted comments on dress and appearance, suggestive remarks or sounds, and lewd jokes. However, the majority did not report.

What sets India apart from others are rigid patriarchy and a culture of taboos. Popular stereotypes of India as an abode of wife-beating and eve-teasing depict women as subjugated. But winds of change seem to have arrived. The string of sexual harassment complaints covered by the media in recent times could be the result of improved reporting by victims.

As a sliver-lining, the Tehelka episode has triggered a debate on workplace sexual harassment. It roused the Indian government to finally bring into force (December 9) the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 that had so far been limited to paper. The case has emboldened other victims to come forward.

Increasing cultural openness, propelled by the rising middle-class (intolerant of corruption and social vices) and aided by new technologies, as well as legal reforms following the infamous Delhi gang rape, are redefining the way Indian women relate to their workplace.

Looking from Nepal, the new laws are important achievements, especially in light of the long struggle to introduce them. The anti-rape laws that came into effect in April provide for life term or death sentence for rape convicts and stringent punishment for offences like stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks. The Act on sexual harassment has mandated internal committees, led by a woman, for redress of complaints.

But implementation is the challenge. Because sexual harassment is subjective, it is often difficult to prove that a sexual gesture was “unwelcome”, or a request involved “sexual favors”. Questions of intent or false, malicious charges of lewd behavior can complicate evidence gathering, slowing down investigation and delaying justice.

In Nepal too, sexual violence or harassment against women is pervasive at workplace, especially in urban areas, made all the more visible recently by the Sita Rai case, and the movement dubbed Walk for Respect. Legislative steps are slow. The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill proposed in 2010 is yet to be passed by the parliament.

The condition of women journalists, who comprise around 10 percent of the 8,013 of total journalists, (FNJ, 2012) reflects the social situation of Nepali women in general. But some experiences are unique. A year ago, in a workshop held at the Union House, journalist Sangeeta Lama stressed on the need for gender guidelines in the media, commenting in her paper that the challenges women journalists face as women are different from the typical challenges faced by all journalists.

Lama noted that just because they are women, female journalists are discriminated against in hiring, pay, benefits, promotion, training and other professional opportunities. And some suffer untold sexual exploitation and harassment from their male colleagues or bosses. In the absence of proper policies, and a support system, victims rarely report offenses.

To address gender violence in media, the government in June 2012 formed a taskforce under Dr Renu Rajbhandari. Women from 15 different districts reported to it that newsrooms were insensitive to gender issues. Women journalists reported they are assigned “soft” beat, such as women, children and other social issues. Newsroom executives often gibe at them that they must have been paid by NGOs for writing on those topics. While male reporters cover politics or economy, women TV journalists are invariably assigned the JPT beat (je payo tehi, trivial topics).

Others said many male journalists use crude, vulgar and unprofessional language, inside and outside the newsroom. Some (desk) editors refer to “news” as “kya dami mal” (a sexually suggestive remark), or a female journalist as a whore. A case involves a drunken male journalist who grabs a female colleague’s hands at workplace.

Some complained about inflexible work hours. A woman journalist sought an 8 pm clock out from her evening shift so she could rush to her infant child at home. Her male supervisor laughed off her request.

In another case, a female journalist felt emotionally tortured for reporting on sexual abuse against women. Several male colleagues harassed her saying they could no longer look at her, or touch her just to avoid sexually abusing her. It is about time, they jeered, all males went to jail; so instead of building schools, Nepal needs to build prisons to lock away the offenders.

The committee’s work culminated in a Department of Information (DoI) circular to media organizations, urging them to adopt gender-friendly measures. Tips included: keep your news and editorial rooms open and transparent, provide separate toilets for females, drop female journalists home during late hours, maintain a complaint box, form and implement an in-house code of ethics, organize quarterly interactions among staff members on gender violence, and gradually install CCTV inside office premises.

It is not clear if these measures were followed through. But in the past year a number of women journalists, including from Gorkhapatra and Kantipur, have come forward with reports of sexual harassment, several of them lodging complaints at the Prime Minister’s helpdesk on Violence Against Women. News of sexual harassment of women journalists, typically at broadcast outlets, such as Nepal 1, Terai Television, NTV, and B FM of Biratnagar, have appeared in the media in lurid details.

We have our own Tejpals, free and fearless, still maintaining these kinds of unacceptable behaviors are normal for our work culture and that “women ask for it”. Convictions are rare. When it comes to their own safety and dignity, “the voice of the voiceless” are voiceless. Perhaps we are waiting for a high-profile case like India’s to trigger outrage and response in the form of internal institutional mechanisms or hurried government legislation.

As experiences elsewhere show, such responses are not enough without a change in our deeply held discriminatory attitudes toward women or female journalists. Our media’s spectacular expansion and growth does not match the narrow workplace behaviors and attitudes. Ignoring this issue will cost the media industry both in terms of quality as well as credibility.

Published in Republica, Dec 28, 2013.