New profession, old bigotry

IN Media Practice | 09/02/2015
The latest incident of sexual assault has highlighted the hostile conditions in which Assamese women journalists work.
ANJUMAN ARA BEGUM wants something to be done. Pix: Journalists in Assam protest against the attack; credit: Eastern Mirror, Nagaland.

The assault of a female journalist associated with DY365, a local news channel in Assam on January 31, exposes the vulnerabilities of women journalists, including the risk of being threatened and defamed as well as assaulted. 

Since December 2012, after the Nirbhaya case, there has been a rise in the media reports of incidents of sexual violence. However, the security of women in the media -- who have dared to enter a space traditionally occupied by men -- does not feature prominently in this discourse. 

In Assam, the appalling working conditions of women journalists have been highlighted by a few individuals from time to time in the hope that the authorities would act. Assam’s media demography is male-dominated with women contributing barely 15 percent of the total and that only in urban areas like Guwahati. Women journalists in this part of India often face sexual harassment by male colleagues, discrimination in promotion or wages, and job insecurity, in addition to social disapproval for choosing such a profession. 

On that day, at around 11 am, the woman journalist decided to gather information to prepare a report on a government announcement promising renovation of prominent police stations in Guwahati. The announcement was made in last September and the project was supposed to be kicked off within 15 days. 

After surveying the dilapidated condition of many police stations, the journalist and her colleague, a male camera person, reached Latasil police station. They entered the police station at around noon. While there, she discovered a scam involving the abuse of power and parks allotted to police officers. 

“After taking necessary footage of the dilapidated police house, me and my colleague proceeded towards the residential area of the police station and came across a lady and at this moment I came to know that the residential house is, in fact, rented out to a private person,” the journalist said. It should be noted that accommodation is provided by the government to its employees for their personal use and is not a rentable asset.

Finding it an interesting subject for her report, she became curious and kept on asking  questions without getting a satisfactory answer. Sensing something fishy, the female journalist decided to report what she had seen. Meanwhile the officer in charge of the police station called the two into his office. After a short discussion, she and her colleague proceeded to leave the police station and walk towards the exit when another police officer entered the campus and warned them not to report anything about the renting out of the space to a private person. He claimed the occupants were his relatives. 

The officer then dragged the cameraman inside. Soon the officer in charge of Latasil police station joined him and both policemen assaulted the cameraman. When the woman journalist tried to help her colleague, she was also allegedly attacked. She has said in her FIR that they tried to undress her and threatened her with death if she reported the story. Both officers also allegedly brandished their weapons at the two colleagues. 

The FIR names the perpetrators as sub-inspector Samsuddin Ahmed of nearby Paltan Bazar police station and officer incharge of Latashil Police Station, Chidananda Bora. In the FIR, she says: “They dragged me and my camera person inside the station and mercilessly beat us and touched my private parts.” The camera equipment was broken during the assault. 

Fortunately, the media fraternity quickly gathered at the police station and demanded the immediate arrest and suspension of the police officers. 

If the two officers felt they could behave in this outrageous fashion, it is because the criminal justice system in the country has institutionalised the culture of impunity, making it impossible to take legal action against state forces. Filing an FIR is a big hurdle for ordinary people and a woman journalist is no exception. That’s why, despite the protests and the fact that the incident was telecast, the police were reluctant to register the FIR. It took nearly eight hours to do so and the medical test of the injured journalists took place only after five hours. 

Several media institutions condemned the assault and called for the suspension of the officers involved. The Electronic Media Forum of Assam came out with an open letter to the Union Minister of Law and Justice demanding a special protection law for journalists on duty. 

To bring the situation under control, the newly appointed Guwahati Police Commissioner, Jyotirmoy Chakravarty,said the two officers have been removed from duty and an inquiry instituted. 

But media protests continued. The police detained journalists when they protested on 1 Februaryin front of the Assam government’s secretariat at Dispur to demand that the Chief Minister order the arrest the two accused men. About 30 media personnel, including the head of the DY365 channel,Pranay Bordoloi,were detained, although they were later released. 

The Chief Minister has announced an inquiry to be conducted by the additional chief secretary and asked for the report to be submitted within a month. However, the media, knowing that such inquiries are merely a ruse to play for time or bury the truth, are continuing to protest. 

In Assam, low wages, job insecurity, lack of social security, and limited choice of assignments characterise the work of many journalists. Though the state has witnessed a booming electronic media and new jobs, the space for female participation has been low owing to a patriarchal culture which divides labour based on gender, so that women are considered ‘weak’ and ‘unsuitable’ for reporting in conflict zones and are usually relegated to desk jobs. 

Sexual harassment is considered by many women in the media to be an ‘occupational hazard’, compounded by the silence that surrounds it. The few women who survive such a hostile work environment go on to experience another layer of discrimination terms of being ignored for promotion.

Like all other workers, surely women journalists are entitled to expect the government to ensure a safe working environment? 

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