It's not only about Tehelka

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Media Practice | 22/11/2013
The incident reflects on the state of the Indian media as a whole and its attitude towards sexual harassment at the workplace and how it is to be handled,
writes KALPANA SHARMA. PIX: Tarun Tejpal

Kalpana Sharma

The issue is Tehelka, and it is not.  It is Tehelka because in the charge of sexual assault brought by a magazine staffer against the editor, Tarun Tejpal, the name of the magazine he founded and nurtured cannot be avoided. Thus even though the issue is about two individuals, it is also about the way a magazine that has set out to challenge and expose institutions, functions internally. The response of Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary, the managing editor of the magazine to what the latter has inappropriately termed “an untoward incident” tells a story that reflects on the values the magazine purports to support. 

On the other hand, the issue is not only about Tehelka. It reflects on the state of the Indian media as a whole and its attitude towards sexual harassment at the workplace and how it is to be handled. 

But let us look at several issues that the Tejpal episode raises. The incident that the staffer has detailed in her email to Tehelka managing editor Shoma Choudhary took place in Goa during the Think festival that the magazine organises each year. The staffer was given duties, such as looking after one of the foreign guests (duties that normally would fall outside the remit of a journalist, but we are told that Tehelka editorial staff have no choice in the matter). In other words, she was on work even if, technically speaking, the location was not her workplace. As such, the equation between her and Tejpal was unequal, with the former being an employee and the latter her boss. In classic cases of sexual harassment, it is precisely this kind of unequal power situation that comes into play. 

Second, is one of attitude. This comes out in the messages that Tejpal allegedly sent to the woman after the two occasions when he assaulted her. In these messages he wanted her to agree that all this was just “banter”. The dictionary meaning of “banter” is “the playful friendly exchange of teasing remarks”. Forcing yourself on a woman is not “banter” by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the very fact that this is how he perceived it reveals the attitude of many men who think nothing of doing the same or similar things to the women with whom they work. 

Third, we come to impunity. In his email to Choudhary, where he seeks “atonement” and wants to “recuse” himself from editorship for six months (why six and not 10, or 12 or any other number?), you sense a confidence that this is something that can be dealt with if you move quickly and are slick about it. So before the storm could break (and if you looked at social media on Thursday, it was nothing less than that), Tejpal sent off his infamous email. And Choudhary accepted his apology with alacrity, virtually dismissing the seriousness of the crime by calling it an “untoward incident” while Tejpal referred to it as “an error of judgment”. We can quibble about the two letters but what is evident is that both are brazenly ignoring the established law in this country. 

According to the earlier Visakha guidelines on sexual harassment, formulated by the Supreme Court in 1997, and the recent Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, it is mandatory for institutions to have Internal Inquiry Committees consisting of representatives of the employer and employees and at least one outside member who knows the law and is familiar with incidents involving sexual harassment. It is also mandated that half the members of the committee must be women. 

Tehelka did not have such a committee in place (although it has now gone about setting it up). There was no inquiry held. And yet both the editor and the managing editor saw nothing wrong in unilaterally deciding that an apology and the editor “recusing” himself for six months was an adequate response to the very serious charge of sexual assault. In her mail to Choudhary, the woman had, in fact, explicitly asked for an inquiry. 

These three aspects speak poorly not just of the individuals involved, or the publication, but also of the media as a whole. Tehelka is not an exception in its cavalier approach towards the crime of sexual harassment. We in the media point our fingers at every conceivable institution in this country and think it well within our rights to question and expose their shortcomings. Yet, how many media houses have complied with the Sexual Harassment Act and set up inquiry committees as required by this law? If a survey were to be conducted today, it is more than likely that less than a handful would have done so. For an institution that is constantly claiming the high moral ground, this lackadaisical attitude towards something that is not just mandated by law but is essential for the safety and well-being of the growing number of women in the media is unacceptable. 

Another aspect that has emerged, yet again, is the power and the downside of social media. In a few hours, not only were the two letters of Tejpal and Choudhary circulating widely but also the confidential email sent by the Tehelka staffer to Choudhary. As Reetika Subramanian points out in her blog posting on the feminist blog Ultra Violet:

Amidst the hordes of tweets and other posts on social media, another disturbing aspect that came to the fore was the brazen voyeurism of the masses. The Twitterati also christened themselves as the messiahs for justice.

“Bits and pieces from the confidential e-mail sent out by the victim made its way to social media websites. Within minutes, intimate details about the grave nature of the ‘unfortunate incident’ were analysed, re-analysed, tweeted and re-tweeted.

“The words ‘penetration’ and ‘disrobing’ invited the wrath of several tweeple. Conversations on the World Wide Web were spent on finding aspects to identify the ‘victim’ without naming her. Thus, with every minute passing by and every new notification, the seriousness of the offence was duly replaced with the need for more intimate details.

“Under the guise of disseminating ‘justice’ and backing the ‘victim’, there were aspersions cast against Tejpal’s twenty-something daughter. Eventually, she succumbed to the pressure and according to news reports, was compelled to delete her Twitter account.

“In this cacophony, I fear that this ‘unfortunate incident’ i.e. an act of ‘sexual harassment’ will be eclipsed by hypocrisy, voyeurism and the unending need to dispense justice in 140 characters.”

From the above it is evident that like mainstream media, social media too is being used to give out salacious details about sexual crimes rather than finding ways to deal with them. In the last one year, despite the discussions around rape coverage that ensued following the December 16, 2012 gang-rape in Delhi, we have seen how much of mainstream media still continues to skirt dangerously close to giving hints about the raped woman’s identity as also giving unnecesary details about the actual crime.  This serves no other purpose except satisfying readers who follow all such crime reports as if they were serialised crime fiction stories.    

Above all, this episode reminds us yet again that the media is far from exemplary when it comes to covering crimes against women or to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. This would be as good a time as any to turn the searchlight inwards for both media institutions and social media users. 

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