Harrassed on assignment

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Practice | 13/07/2011
Reporters in the field experience a ‘low-level’ sexual abuse that they often ignore, not wishing to jeopardise a good assignment or be treated differently from their male colleagues.
GEETA SESHU on a problem that is coming out into the open.
The sexual harassment women journalists face isn’t just at the work-place, inside newsrooms, with colleagues or bosses.  It happens even when journalists, especially reporters and correspondents, go out to work – in the field, during interviews or meetings with ‘sources’ who hold out the promise of an exclusive tidbit.
Women journalists are now increasingly in the field and covering a range of issues – from politics, war, conflict, corruption, business etc. Even as they report on sexual harassment elsewhere, they are as vulnerable to it at the work-place. They experience a ‘low-level’ sexual abuse that they often ignore, not wishing to jeopardise a good assignment or be treated differently from their male colleagues.
So far, silence has enveloped this issue within the media. The attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Sqaure in Egypt in February this year brought it into sharp focus. Several more stories, mostly centered on the sexual assault or groping of women in crowded areas of conflict, have begun emerging from the silence.
Closer home, Sunetra Choudhury’s defiant article in the DNA rips apart another scenario: that of the woman reporter who meets a powerful, public figure for a quote or a story and then finds him hitting on her in the clumsiest manner possible.
Sunetra of course, doesn’t name anyone. For which she has already been rather brutally criticised (just scroll down the comments section of the article posted online in the newspaper’s website). Of course, none of the people who posted comments bothered to name themselves either, including the editor of a newspaper he (or maybe she) described as a prominent chain that also owned an airlines. This commentator tells us that the tourism minister of a state asked the woman reporter to come and meet him alone for an exclusive, getting irritated when she said she’d bring the cameraman along!
It also appears that she did not lodge any complaint or ever register a protest – either directly to the politician concerned, the political party he belonged to or even to her own media house. Instead, she chose this forum, public as it may seem, but again in a form that may rob it of credence.
It would be unfortunate if that happened.
Sunetra’s testimony, with all the missing blanks, is still important. It does tell us what happened quite clearly, gives us hints about the identity of the politician concerned and stops at that. One could dismiss it as a teaser, just one more gossipy bit of non-news from a journalist and author.
But it is not exactly non-news. Sexual harassment is a major issue and when it happens, as it did, when a journalist goes out to get a story, it attacks at her very professionalism and undermines her efforts to do a job without fear or favour.
So, it is an act of courage to stand up and publicly say that a public figure, who holds an office, made an entirely inappropriate sexual comment in response to a question. Clearly, the politician didn’t stop at just that one comment but went ahead with more salacious details.
It is also an act of courage to recount the journalist’s own participation in all of this, to publicly acknowledge that she was unable to see the place she was being assigned to or even recognise the assault for what it was, until her male colleague pointed it out to her.  But this is a familiar scenario. Some women do internalise oppression and either ignore or trivialise its impact and it would take some introspection for this journalist to figure out why she merely reacted with a nervous giggle.  
Women journalists have tackled sexual harassment at the work-place, albeit not as often or as successfully.
  • Last year, a journalist was molested by police of the Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) during the Rath Yatra in Puri, Orissa and a vociferous protest from journalists organisations was lodged to take action against the two jawans; 
  • A woman journalist and television producer has been fighting her dismissal  against Sahara for several years now in the labour court in Mumbai in a case arising out of a sexual harassment complaint against a colleague;
  • more recently,  two journalists in Mumbai were suspended for a week from a leading national newspaper after a complaint was lodged against them for drinking and making use of the company’s vehicle to get dropped home, with a minor diversion on a local bar. The company vehicle was on duty to drop a woman sub-editor home but the duo made her wait while they had their tipple!
It took eight years for French writer Tristane Banon to speak up about the assault by Dominuque Strauss-Kahn when she went to interview him but the powerful ex-International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief, who may soon be free of charge of assault in the Sofitel Hotel chambermaid case,  is already preparing to sue her for false charges.
In the wake of the assault on Lara Logan, journalists’ associations have begun discussing the issue. A report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)  entitled “The silencing crime: sexual violence and journalists” documents sexual assaults of both women and men journalists in three scenarios: targeted sexual violation of specific journalists, often in reprisal for their work; mob-related sexual violence against journalists covering public events; and sexual abuse of journalists in detention or captivity.
Now, the International News Safety Institute has begun collecting information from women journalists, not just on conflict or mob-related situation, but everywhere, so as to draft a safety guide for women in the media.
It is crucial to provide women with support mechanisms when they do take up sexual harassment. The Supreme Court’s guidelines in the Vishakha judgement lay down the structure of committees in workplaces to take up these cases. While the media has reported on the case and the guidelines, a survey of media houses that have actually implemented them would throw up very embarrassing figures!
But the support isn’t merely legal. It has to be social too. Which means that women have a right to say ‘no’ to invitations, to object to sexual innuendoes or comments, sexually abusive language or even jokes bandied about at the work-place or even to demand an apology from male politicians, corporate heads or any other public figure who makes a sexually explicit overture.
In the complex world of professional relationships, where the personal spills over, advantageously or otherwise, it is possible that a woman may not object or may laugh at a joke or may even take a comment from one male colleague but not from another. But the bottom line is clear: if the woman takes objection, there should be no two other words about the matter.
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