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Interview: Harassment, assaults raise alarm bells about treatment of female journalists in India

By: Carolin Dürkop, IPI contributor

The recent attack and gang-rape of an Indian journalist who was on assignment in the northern state of Uttar Pardesh underscores the dangers faced by female reporters, an editor of The Hindu told IPI in an interview.

The 30-year-old employee of a Haridwar-based Hindu newspaper was reportedly seized on March 27 by three men driving a luxury vehicle, taken to a remote area and raped by two of the men. She made her way to a hospital for treatment.

The case follows several widely reported sexual assaults against news professionals, including the gang rape of a female photojournalist in Mumbai on Aug. 23, 2013, and in February this year, a founder of an investigative news magazine in the western state of Goa was charged with raping a female colleague.*

Rasheeda Bhagat, editorial consultant at The Hindu BusinessLine, discusses violence against female journalists and offers her insight into what is being done - and could be done - about it in this excerpt of a telephone interview.

Could you give us a bit more insight on last month's gang rape of a female journalist while on assignment in Uttar Pradesh?

Uttar Pradesh is generally a backward state in India. When it comes to women's rights, education and employment, it has a really bad track record. Strangely, most people in my organisation did not know about this case of the rape of the female journalist. In fact, even I had not heard about it. The Indian media did not cover it much. It was not widely reported. So this is the strange case of Western media telling us about what happens in India. One of the reasons could be that the media in India [are] so busy with the elections. These elections in India are so keenly fought, it is a fierce battle.

Because of the international coverage of this issue, there is a perception that violence and sexual harassment of women journalists in India has reached levels that actually affect their work. Would you agree with this assessment?

We have to look at two things. One is sexual harassment at the workplace and the other is violence against women either in the office or out on assignments. In India lately, women's safety issues have come to the foreground. It's not that only recently India has become unsafe for women but after the Delhi incident in December of 2012 [in which a young woman was raped and assaulted on a public bus and later died of her injuries], women have said, 'enough is enough'.

Earlier, Indian women used to suffer this in silence. At the workplace, sexual harassment consists of everyday sexism more than the actual demanding of sexual favours. It's more the everyday comments that are made about the way you dress or the way you look. However when journalists leave the workplace, they are just like any other woman and yes, they are vulnerable. So the female journalists I talked to said that they are very careful. Appropriate dress is important because they don't want to stand out in a crowd.

Could you tell us a bit more about violence against women journalists in general and the ongoing discussion about it?

A lot of my colleagues were saying that sometimes - even when they feel uncomfortable - they just allow it to pass, and don't make a complaint. Because if other people laugh, including other women, they wonder if they are being too prudish or too proper. But it is an intrusion into their personal space. A lot of that is happening in the Indian media, including our own organisation, I will not deny that.

The difference is that in the English media we have so many senior women coming into editorial positions. It's become more comfortable for younger women to make a complaint or to flag an issue. But if you go from big organisations in the metros, to smaller towns, like where the rape of this journalist took place, the entire thing changes. As you know India has several languages. So if you go to a Hindi or a Tamil or a Telugu newspaper or television channel, the women have come from smaller towns. They are the ones who are expected to be very deferential to their bosses. So a lot more sexual harassment occurs because these women are afraid of losing their jobs.

A woman who dares to complain is either delegated to unimportant news, she loses her job or is transferred. It is a question of job security. Lots of women suffer this kind of sexual harassment in silence.

You mentioned there isn't much coverage of these issues. Do you think that the awareness of these types of issues is increasing in the population at large or just a smaller educated part of the country?

It is increasing and it has increased tremendously especially after the Delhi incident because women have decided that they are not going to take this. You find groups of young women going to police stations to complain. We had this one incident of a policeman slapping a woman and that became a huge issue. On social media they immensely criticised this. They demanded he should be fired. However, this particular case has not been noticed because it was from a smaller news outlet.

I understand that, besides of physical violence, online harassment of women journalists is extremely common. Are you familiar with this and, if yes, could you describe some cases?

A lot of online harassment occurs, especially towards female journalists working in television. For example there are male politicians who call up female news reporters telling them, 'I am watching you on the TV and you are looking so sexy'. And then there are senior editors of television channels in India. I'll give you an example: Sagarika Ghose of CNN-IBN had [tweeted] against a front-runner for the prime minister elections. The way she was attacked was immense. There were threats of rape and murder which caused her to actually delete that tweet. She must have been really scared. This kind of online harassment is rapid.

I spoke to Sunetra Choudhury today, an editor of NDTV [New Delhi Television]. She was saying that while she was working in a news channel in 2004, she found it culturally very creepy. The men made her feel very uncomfortable and she left. Then after going into The Indian Express and NDTV, she felt absolutely comfortable because there are so many female bosses. The power has shifted now. However, she says that she does get abuse on Twitter. The problem in India is that the political atmosphere … is so charged that if you say something against the favourite party you get a lot of hate. Even I get a lot of hate mail. But Twitter is a very public platform. Sunetra says that whenever she gets abuse she immediately responds to them saying that she will report them to the police. She says the abuse then stops immediately.

What has been the response from the journalistic community and the media industry, if any? Have any steps been taken to expose and prevent this phenomenon?

I think after the Delhi gang rape, news organisations have certainly taken more care about the safety of their female employees. Last year the Supreme Court [issued] an important judgement making it mandatory for all organisations to have an internal complaints committee against sexual harassment. So The Hindu has organised one about three months ago, and I am the presiding officer for that. We have put this committee in place and even prior to that we've had three complaints concerning gender-based harassment already. One employee was harassing another employee on Facebook and stalked her. She filed a complaint, because she was feeling very uncomfortable. We then had a discussion and called him and he started crying. Strangely in the three complaints we've dealt with, two of the men we called wept. They just broke down. They didn't think it would be taken so seriously and didn't want to lose their jobs. After that complaints have stopped completely.

Are such committees set up in other media outlets as well?

Yes, the NDTV, for example, also already has set up such a committee. I spoke to their senior editor recently and he said they have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. We know there is no such thing as zero tolerance but at least men are speaking about it. However, the everyday sexism still continues because the media [are] still dominated by men.

Do you feel that to bring a positive change to this situation, is it just about bringing awareness to the culture or do you believe that India - or the media outlets - need a new regulatory framework, such as laws or internal policies?

We have laws in plenty; there is no lack of laws. But who implements these laws? The sensitisation has to begin at the level of the police constable. A 50-year-old woman went to the police to report a rape and was laughed at and told 'look at you, who would want to rape you?' That kind of mindset has to change.

The way men are brought up has to change, it all goes back to the way mothers bring up their sons. It's going to take a long time, but we have adequate laws. Also, the justice system acts swiftly only in high-profile cases which the media take up. There are so many cases where nobody bothers, when the woman is poor, or doesn't have the means to hire a lawyer.

Do you have any other information that you would like to add?

Unfortunately, the main problem is that not much research has been done on this topic and authentic data is scarce. Also, unfortunately, even more than public spaces, many Indian homes are unsafe for the girl child and women. It begins at the foetus stage, and the dwindling sex ratio in India is a grim pointer to the wide prevalence of female foeticide even in rich urban homes in New Delhi or Ahmedabad. Dowry (bridegroom price) deaths do take place, and the sexual abuse of the girl child or woman continues with knowledge of the female elders of the house who refuse to speak out.


*Three men convicted of raping the photojournalist were sentenced to death by a Mumbai court on April 4, 2014. The death sentences were handed down under a tough law that took effect in 2013 aimed at deterring sexual assaults.

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