Sexual harassment in newspapers

BY Pamela Bhagat| IN Media Practice | 07/07/2004
Sexual harassment in newspapers


Sexual harassment is part of work culture in media organisations in India but women either do not know how or, choose not to do anything about it. 



Extracts from  Status of Women Journalists in India, produced  by the Press Institute of India, under the aegis of the National Commission for Women


Pamela Bhagat


One of the most provocative survey results was the relativity in the perception of what comprises sexual harassment amongst media women. On a more optimistic note - after articulately expressing their concerns, most believe in the legal instruments that by and large have not been enforced. However, the most revealing was a certain readiness to justify the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment, often blaming it on the interpersonal dynamics of a work environment that includes women and men from a variety of economic, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds.     


"Though I work in a male dominated atmosphere I am fortunate nothing ever has happened to me. But I know of many women who have been sexually harassed. My office colleagues are very protective about me and I have full faith in them. The problem begins where outsiders are concerned, it’s the ‘outside’ circuit that takes advantage."


"Technically, women can go to the department head with their complaint. In practice it does not happen. Most women do not want to talk about the incident because they are afraid of what others will say. In fact even if it is a minor discretion, like a man grabbing a woman’s hand, the moment the woman complains people suspect there is something more to it."


"While it may not amount to sexual harassment, often bawdy jokes are cracked in front of women. This can be uncomfortable, but personally I have never really been harassed on this count. It depends on how you conduct yourself."


"I even thought of leaving my job but I was dissuaded by my male colleagues. Later, they protected me from my boss. My colleagues approached my boss and spoke to him. My husband was also very supportive. He advised me to ignore the incident .The accused was the senior editor, nothing happened to him. He did not harass me any further and in fact behaved very well with me."


"Women are receiving more opportunities than before but it is also true that women who can build personal rapport with the male boss receive the best facilities and get promoted even if they are undeserving. Those who are skilled but refuse to bow down or establish personal contacts are ignored. I have experienced this myself and am a sufferer. I was even prepared to take my boss to court but I withdrew when he admitted he was wrong, apologised and gave me the promotion due to me." 


It was mostly during personal interaction that sexual harassment emerged as a major concern of most respondents. But when asked whether they had to put up with sexist remarks/gestures or if they had been sexually harassed in any way at their workplace or in association with their work, 22.7 per cent said they had, 8 per cent said they were ‘not sure’ and many others either denied or refused to comment. An interesting finding is that, of those who had experienced sexual harassment, 31.5 per cent said it had ‘seriously’ undermined their confidence and affected their work, 24 per cent said it had ‘mildly.’ An alarming 41.3 per cent said it had ‘no affect’.  


These findings show sexual harassment is part of work culture in media organisations in India but women either do not know how or, for a wide variety of reasons, choose not to do anything about it. Only 15.2 per cent of women who experienced sexual harassment had made a formal complaint. 10.8 per cent of those who did not make a formal complaint did not do so for fear of intimidation, victimisation or losing their job. A significant number (40.2 per cent) did not complain because they felt sexual harassment is not taken seriously in their workplace or that their complaint would seem trivial or over-reacting. Many respondents (22.8 per cent) believe sexual harassment is an accepted part of their organisation’s culture and tolerated in the workplace, while others (14.1 per cent) had no confidence in the management’s ability to take action. 


Sexual harassment at the workplace is not only a gross violation of women’s right to a safe and supportive work environment but also, more fundamentally, of their basic right to livelihood. The Supreme Court ruling of 1977, commonly referred to as the Vishakha Guidelines, is quite explicit about the range of behaviours that the apex court views as sexual harassment under the law. Any contact, demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography are all considered forms of sexual abuse. The Court included unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal sexual conduct, leering, dirty jokes and comments about a person’s body. It also places the onus on employers to make this definition known to all employees, male or female, so that everyone is aware of the various behaviours that are both socially and legally unacceptable. In addition, it mandates the setting up of sexual harassment complaints and redressal committees within the workplace that include at least one member external to the organisation with relevant knowledge and experience in dealing with such matters. 


It also specifies that it is the responsibility of the employer to recognize sexual harassment as a serious offence. The organisation is responsible for any sexual abuse by its employees and the management. Employers are not necessarily shielded from this liability because they were not aware of the incident. If one is abused while on an assignment, it is still the duty of the employer to take action.


While these guidelines exist, they are seldom implemented, enforced or even known. As Usha Turanga, formerly of the Indian Express observed, women at times don’t even know they are being harassed and have no orientation to assert their rights. This is borne out by the experience of a journalist from Kolkata - "As a woman journalist I have to face indecent behaviour from my senior colleagues. They pretended to be ‘fatherly’, gained my trust and then harassed me sexually."  The contract system is making things more difficult for women since vulnerabilities increase with job insecurity and there is no forum or union for redressal because under the present system, unions too have by and large lost their relevance.


Character assassination and slandering is a common ploy to increase women’s insecurities and impair professional accomplishments. For example, with success comes the assumption that a special relationship exists between the woman journalist and her superiors or between her and the source. Since most of the time these superiors and interviewees are men, people believe that female journalists carry out sexual favours.


Moreover, women in the media are vulnerable to harassment from colleagues who come drunk for night shift and the night staff leaving pornographic pictures and messages on their computers. Making sexist, vulgar comments is common in the editorial rooms of newspapers as also so-called humorous or snide remarks on women colleagues’ work. Most women hesitate to speak of sexual harassment, but are more than willing to speak of the sexist remarks they are subjected to at the workplace.


Sexual harassment is prevalent but very few admit to being victims, instead women speak of experiences of  friends and colleagues. They also speak of ‘managing’ such experiences/environments rather than dealing with it squarely or seeking redressal within the organisation. "This is not a compromise but a survival strategy since we should not leave the job", says S H Savitri, editor of Karmaveera in Bangalore.


A senior Malayalam journalist who spoke of the harassment of women both sexually and professionally put it succinctly: "A woman works alone and suffers alone…she finds no support either at home or at office. Men on the other hand, when faced with allegations, close ranks and stand by their colleagues."


This lack of support among women for their harassed women colleagues has been uniformly reported across all states. No colleague raised her voice in support of a cancer-afflicted senior sub in a Kannada daily when she was harassed for two long years by her editor. No woman journalist expressed support for two women in Hyderabad who were traumatized by the sexual harassment by their colleagues. Women empathise only to some extent and the attitude generally, according to a Deccan Chronicle journalist is - "We are concerned about our jobs and have our own problems. Why bother about others?"


Sexual harassment may be verbal or physical and could be from seniors, colleagues or from people that have to be met in the line of duty but the fact remains that complaints continue to be viewed as overreacting and the fault is often placed upon the victim. News organisations clearly have not made the investment necessary to ensure that women journalists are provided a safe work environment to achieve their full potential. In fact sexual harassment within media organisations has been a means to control and exclude women from occupying key positions in the industry.


The issue of sexual harassment requires institutional attention and also enforcement of the Vishakha Guidelines by a regulatory body. But before anything else, women in the media need to unconditionally identify, condemn and take action against all forms and incidences of sexual harassment. It is indeed ironic that those who report on such issues in society actually suffer it in their own workplaces.


The Sabita Lakhar case in Assam is the first and only case of sexual harassment to come out into the public arena in the North East Sabita Lakhar, Chief Sub-Editor of Amar Asom, a popular daily in Assamese held a press conference on September 12 ,2003 at the Guwahati Press Club where she accused the editor of the newspaper, Homen Borgahain, a revered old Assamese write and author, of sexually harassing her since 2000. She said that she had managed to work for the past two years, as there was an executive editor who she dealt with for work lessening the need to take orders directly from the editor. However, recently, the executive editor had left, and she had to again work directly under Mr Homen Borgahain.


When he went back to his old tricks she wrote a protest letter to the Managing Editor, Managing Director and other top functionaries of the media house for their intervention, and gave a copy to the Editor. What she got in return was a note from the management that until she submitted a clearance, certified by the Banks, her salary and other dues would be withheld by the Management. In effect she was being shown the door. A protest meeting organized by the Journalists Union of Assam was held at the Guwahati Press Club. The Editor has filed a defamation case against Lakhar supported by the media house, G L Publications, Guwahati. The journalists of Assam are organising themselves to support Lakhar, but so far nothing concrete has been done in her favour. Meanwhile, as happens to women who decide to blow the whistle on harassment, Sabita has been suffering. She finds herself without a job and other media houses too have shown little sympathy or support.


It is pertinent to point out that in response to the questions on sexual harassment in the questionnaire, late in 2002 Sabita Lakhar had said she was being harassed by a man in a senior position.


Shankuntala Saruparia 

(Stringer, Hindustan Dainik, Udaipur, Rajasthan)


Shankuntala Saruparia worked in Jai Rajasthan Hindi daily in Jaipur in 1984-88. Her father Dr Bhanwar Surana , ex-bureau chief of Hindustan Times (Hindi), Delhi, inspired her to join journalism. After marriage there was a break in career and shifting from Jaipur to Udaipur, she worked as a casual employee in Dainik Bhaskar from 1996 till 2000. Though she worked full time and produced many stories that were applauded, she was not made permanent. While she kept getting awards, instituted internally through monthly assessment of stories and work, the then editor suddenly found Shankuntala did not write "well". This outcome was the culmination of three years of sexual harassment by this editor and his crony. She narrated how this editor invited himself for dinners at her place or asked her to entertain his wife/mother when they visited him in Udaipur. He and his crony would tell her "why do you come to the work, you write from home, we will pick up your stories" - thus hinting at sexual favours. Shankuntala tried to handle the situation diplomatically for the fear of losing her job but at some point she had to put her foot down. This irked the editor and he gave the excuse that she did not write well. Shankuntala left the job. Surprisingly these men knew very well that Shakuntala’s father, Dr Surana, was a respected senior journalist. Shankuntala felt if she discussed the issue with either father or husband they would dissuade her from work. She also described how this editor scared away an aspiring young girl by taking her out for dinner and making direct suggestions. The girl never came back. The editor is now one of the top officials of a Delhi-based TV company.


Shakuntala made a representation to the Dainik Bhaskar head office with proof of her work and appreciation. After looking into the matter, Dainik Bhaskar directed its next editor in Udaipur to reinstate her. In the meantime, Mrinal Pande, editor of Hindustan, appointed her as stringer on Rs 2000. Shankuntala preferred this independent work to going back to Dainik Bhaskar as a full timer on Rs 2500 

Varsha Patil

(Dainik Lokmat, Nagpur, Maharashtra)


Varsha Patil from Dainik Lokmat (Marathi) in Nagpur narrated how a male colleague used to harass women colleagues by standing in their way so that they were forced to brush past him or he would elbow them. This was his habit for any and every woman. Varsha retaliated by elbowing him. Everybody noticed it and there was a lot of gossip. It reached the management and Varsha was called. She told them boldly that the man had been trying his dirty trick for too long and someone had to retaliate in a language he would understand. The management agreed and supported her and other women colleagues. This man was summoned and reprimanded about his misbehaviour. Since then he has been behaving himself.


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