One of the open secrets of working in journalism entails the atrocious clauses that contract employees have to work under. And these may not apply to the ground staff alone, but anchors and journalists who – one would assume – have greater bargaining powers.
As the case of India TV anchor Tanu Sharma shows, employers routinely come up with difficult contracts that play havoc with an employee’s decision to quit should he or she want to.
This is an excerpt of the contract that Tanu had to sign with India TV to get a job there. It pretty much does away with her right to quit when she wants to, and binds her to pay a rather hefty penalty if she does.
Ironically, when her services were finally terminated, it was on the basis of an SMS she sent, says the HR of the channel. Presumably, she has not been made to pay the penalty so far.
On June 22, late at night, tweets started appearing about a news anchor trying to commit suicide after accusing her employers of harassment.
You could have almost believed that this was a Twitter rumour floated by people who have lots of time on hand. Yet, by this time, the identity of the news anchor had been revealed. About an hour before attempting suicide, Tanu wrote a Facebook post naming some senior colleagues she held responsible. She also stated that working at India TV had been nothing short of a nightmare for her. “I’m tired of being brave. Tired of fighting against all odds”, she wrote.
We decided to speak to her to understand what had led her to take such a serious step.
Tanu, who is 31 years old, was a news anchor with India TV till last week. According to her, she took daily harassment she suffered at India TV in her stride. She said she took it as part of newsroom politics, and let it go. But things reached a tipping point on Sunday, June 22. Which is when she attempted to commit suicide by consuming rat poison at the India TV headquarters in Noida Sector 85.
We went and met her at Noida’s Kailash hospital, where she was admitted immediately after the incident. The allegations she makes — if proved in a court of law — point to the pressures and harassment many young journalists, especially women, face in the media industry.
Tanu said, “I joined India TV in February this year (2014) and things started to turn sour within a month.” Tanu reported to Senior Executive Editor, Anita Sharma on a daily basis, although her immediate superior and head of department (HoD) was Senior Executive Editor, M N Prasad.
According to Tanu, Sharma repeatedly humiliated her in front of her colleagues and belittled her on every occasion. “She’d find faults with everything, from the way I looked, to the clothes I wore, to my hairstyle. I was told I’m not glamorous enough and that I didn’t know how to carry myself.” Tanu added that she still can’t understand why the channel hired her in the first place.
This is not Tanu’s first job though. She has been a TV journalist for 12 years and has previously worked with Zee News, P7 News and Sahara Samay. She says she accepted the constant ticking off as part of adjusting to the culture of a new workplace. At no point, however, did she find the criticism constructive. “Anita Sharma would constantly criticise my voice and say it’s too harsh but no one in the newsroom complained. In fact, I routinely gave voiceovers for special features – why would they let me do so if my voice was so bad?”
Within a few days of her joining India TV, Tanu alleges that Sharma had hinted that she would like to send her “somewhere out” to “meet” people. “I asked whether it was for an interview or a byte but she never responded clearly. She kept telling me that she would like to send me out for some other reasons and once, when I insisted, stated that I could earn extra money if I agreed”, says Tanu.
We spoke to journalist Sunanda Dixit, who has been in the television news industry for more than a decade before she quit to teach at Indraprastha University. According to her, it is common for the senior management to coax junior female reporters or anchors to “socialise” with politicians and bureaucrats for favours. “The practice is rampant in the TV industry. Although I personally never faced this problem, one knew of such things happening. While nobody is so crude as to tell you to sleep with people for favours, the intent is understood.” Dixit’s last job was at IBN 7.
TK Rajalakshmi, President of Indian Women’s Press Corps, says she is not surprised by Tanu’s allegations and such practices are often projected as harmless networking. Tanu insists that her senior colleagues had ulterior motives and since she showed no interest in their offer, they made life difficult for her. Her HoD stopped responding to her calls when she tried to speak to him about the problems she was having with Sharma. “On one occasion he told me that we could meet outside [the office] to discuss the issue. I wasn’t keen on that and gave up hope of redress”, she says.
Tanu says the harassment continued and she was kept off air for no apparent reason during the general elections. “I was routinely embarrassed for the clothes I wore for the bulletin, even though it is the channel that provides and approves the wardrobe. I even sought an appointment with our Managing Director Ritu Dhawan, who is married to Editor-in-Chief Rajat Sharma, since she had hired me but never got an appointment.”
“Leaving the job was not an option since I didn’t have the money to pay them on resigning.” The India TV contract clearly states that a presenter does not have “any right to terminate” the three-year agreement. It binds its employees to pay six months of their salary to the channel in case they want to resign. Normally, full-time employees are expected to serve a notice period varying one to three months on resigning, failing which the employee is expected to pay the company a certain amount. However, several companies enforce much tougher clauses on contract employees. But even so, payment of a six-month salary is unheard of.
India TV’s contract, of which Newslaundry has a copy, also mentions that the channel spends Rs 26.40 lakh on a presenter annually as part of the presenter’s “brand building expense”. This, it states, is an“estimated” and “very conservative” amount. This staggering, and rather exaggerated, expense could be used by the company as a justification for the negative covenant in the contract.
Tanu also added that she underwent severe depression and loss of confidence working in the TV channel. “I used to cry every day and broke down finally. As a final resort I messaged MN Prasad simply saying that ‘I am resigning’.”
Tanu claims that Prasad said he’d discuss the issue, but he made no effort to call her or hear her out. While standard procedure across organisations need an employee to submit a formal resignation letter, Tanu claims that Prasad treated her one-line SMS as a formal resignation and asked her to leave without giving her a notice period or taking an exit interview.This is rather surprising considering the contract does not allow the employee to terminate his/her services.
“The HR acted more or less like a puppet in the hands of the management and I was told to leave”, she says. Dejected with the way she was treated Tanu attempted suicide.
Rahul Khanna, Chief Manager – HR and Legal at India TV, did not explain why the six-month salary termination clause was added to the contract. However, he says that Tanu was given warnings by the HR department. Her first warning was given when she was laughing on-air during a live news bulletin while presenting serious news. Her second warning was when she left the studio and newsroom while on duty, went to the cafeteria and put her phone on silent. According to Rahul, “Due to non-availability of anchor, the channel had to give a breaking news without an anchor on just graphics.”
Regarding the SMS resignation, he says it was confirmed with her by her immediate senior and then forwarded to HR. “During her service she never made any complaint of harassment or even shared it with any colleague.”
This is India TV’s official response to us.
Last week, anchor Tanu Sharma had a minor disagreement with her seniors in the newsroom, followed which she sent a sms to her departmental head saying that she is resigning. Her decision was confirmed with her. Thereafter, her decision to resign communicated by her through sms and confirmed by her, was forwarded to HR. HR proceeded to accept her resignation. They also informed her by mail that her decision to resign has been accepted, and she should meet them for relieving formalities. She came to the office and submitted her I-card, etc. and the matter was amicably closed. On Sunday morning she started sending some very demeaning and vicious messages to her seniors and in one message threatened to harm herself. As soon as it came to our knowledge HR and admin considered it and found it appropriate and necessary to report the matter to the police immediately. We also requested them to immediately send their people to her house to verify and ensure that no harm comes to her. In the meanwhile she stood on the road outside the building and tried to consume something, security and HR staff strived to stop her, and rushed her to the nearby hospital immediately. Doctors have informed us that she is safe and have advised that she needs psychiatric counseling.
The two people she has named are senior and very respected people in the organization. She has caused immense mental harassment to them and to their families.
The allegations Tanu has made against her senior colleagues will need to be proven in court. Yet, there can be no excuse for the anti-labour clause in the organisation’s contract that forces its employees to pay a hefty amount on quitting. For now, the Noida police has taken cognisance of the case and filed a First Information Report against Anita Sharma and MN Prasad under Sections 306, 511 and 504. Tanu will be recording her statement in front of a lady investigation officer today.
It is noteworthy that according to the Vishaka guidelines, sexual harassment includes “demand or request for sexual favours”. Any innuendo that seeks to outrage the modesty of a woman, like Tanu has claimed happened in her case where she was expected to “meet” influential people, comes under the purview of Vishaka guidelines.
Meanwhile, the media, which had shown much alacrity in reporting the Tejpal case, has remained silent on Tanu’s attempt to commit suicide. While the Tejpal case made it to the front page and primetime news for at least a week, Tanu’s case was relegated to the back pages of newspapers and was forgotten by the second day of her attempt to suicide. Even as papers like The Indian Express and The Times of India reported on the case, the news reports don’t go beyond quoting from Tanu’s Facebook note. The only support her case seems to have found in the media is in the Indian Women’s Press Corps — which has urged women to wear black ribbons today to protest harassment of women at workplace.
Whether Tanu’s allegations are true or not, they do need to be discussed and investigated by the media. Till this is done, no one will know who has been wronged – India TV or Tanu. And if indeed Tanu has been a victim of harassment, it is media reportage and focus on this incident that will ensure that companies are more careful about the way they treat employees.