#MeToo: Women journalists tell stories that Big Media won’t

The movement must now become inclusive and supportive beyond the boundaries of the privileged, and hopefully, this can and will happen.

ByCherry Agarwal
#MeToo: Women journalists tell stories that Big Media won’t
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Full disclosure: Newslaundry’s Internal Complaints Committee is investigating accusations made against their employee.

Earlier yesterday, seven women sent a petition to The Times of India, accusing Hyderabad resident editor KR Sreenivas of sexual harassment, and asking for his termination. The petition was a result of an outbreak of complaints on Twitter on various instances of Sreenivas’s harassment of women he worked with. These stories started with writer Sandhya Menon’s thread on Twitter on October 5.

The petition is the latest in a series of events blossoming across Indian media houses, as past and present employees have disclosed instances of sexual harassment, assault and power play. Over the past week, these women from a section of (mostly) the English media stood in solidarity with each other, telling their stories.

The impact has been swift and almost unprecedented. HuffPost India’s editor-in-chief, Aman Sethi, released a statement on allegations against their former employees, Anurag Verma and Utsav Chakraborty, saying they would check “if there were any similar allegations while they were here”. The Quint reported on allegations against their senior correspondent, Meghnad Bose, who later apologised on Twitter. Business Standard has initiated “due process” to look into allegations against their principal correspondent Mayank Jain, who had previously worked with Scroll and Bloomberg Quint, both of whom have issued statements. Jain has now tendered his resignation. Based on allegations, national political editor and chief of bureau of Hindustan Times Prashant Jha has stepped down from all managerial positions and is facing a full investigation by the newspaper’s Internal Complaints Committee.  Most recently, accusations have surfaced against former journalist MJ Akbar, who is currently Minister of State for External Affairs. And this is just to name a few.

It’s an important moment in India—almost exactly a year to the day after The New York Times published its Harvey Weinstein investigation. It’s also nearly a year since Raya Sarkar’s list came out on sexual predators in India’s academic spaces.

While it was NYT and New Yorker‘s in-depth investigative reporting that dethroned the likes of Weinstein, it is social media that has provided women in India with a cathartic and empowering space to be heard and validated. Apart from Sreenivas, Sandhya Menon called out Gautam Adhikari, former chief editor of DNA, for kissing her without consent. The next day, on October 6, another allegation of assault was made against Adhikari by a professor at Seattle University, Sonora Jha. She tweeted: “He tried to push me into his hotel bed but I pushed him away and managed to run out the door.” At the time, both Sonora Jha and Adhikari were working at The Times of India, Bangalore.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Menon said she doesn’t want police or legal action—she wants these men to be “held accountable”. Following her harassment by Sreenivas, Menon had registered a complaint with the HR department and had reached out to Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd’s Internal Complaints Committee. The woman heading the department told her Sreenivas was “harmless”. Sreenivas has now been asked to go on administrative leave, pending inquiry.

Adhikari also responded, telling Newslaundry, “I do not recall these incidents from many years ago. I have always treated my colleagues with courtesy and respect. I retired from the media several years back though I have been writing occasionally. I would sincerely apologise if I made anyone uncomfortable in my presence though I cannot recall such occasions and I have not harassed anyone.”

Lack of institutional action is one reason why sexual harassment in the workplace continues with such impunity. This is corroborated by a story by a senior journalist, who has not posted on Twitter. She told Newslaundry, “In 2007, I had just joined Tehelka. I was 21 and I was in the web team.” A year later, she moved to the magazine section. This is where her interaction with the harasser, a senior editor with Tehelka at that time, started.

The journalist said, “He would ask me things about my body, describe my body in very descriptive ways and say things like how he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He would make me sit in the office all day pretending to edit my work but instead [pass] similar lewd comments. He would call me drunk at night and would comment on how I was looking when I was wearing this and that.”

The journalist finally wrote to the then editor-in-chief. Her complaints were dismissed and she was asked to make a choice between front-of-book stories—which is news stories—or shift to a state bureau away from Delhi.

Lack of financial support prevented the reporter from quitting her job. She brought the matter to the then special investigations editor. Meanwhile, allegations were made to discredit her. “It was alleged that I had made the complaint because I was inefficient with my work,” she told Newslaundry. Over time the special investigations editor ensured that the reporter didn’t have to deal with the accused but the journalist said no official action was taken against the accused.

The journalist said, “I didn’t know how to deal with it, who to confide in, didn’t want to lose my jobs. Then there are jibes, such as you aren’t cool enough to ‘take’ such things.”

Backlash is a common thread in many stories. Journalist Padma Priya D came forward with her allegations of sexual harassment when she had been a cub reporter with The Hindu in Hyderabad in 2009. She had been repeatedly harassed by a colleague who was a special correspondent with the bureau at that time. Priya also shared a 2013 blogpost she had written about the incidents. When despite her verbally asking the accused to stop, the harassment continued, she took the matter to the chief of bureau and was asked “why she wanted to make it a bigger deal than it was”. In the absence of a complaints committee, Priya finally wrote to then editor-in-chief of The Hindu, N Ram.

Newslaundry has a copy of the complaint filed in April, 2009. It says, “The incidence of harassment began four months ago with personal jibes against my grandfather (who was a former UNI chief and also the chief of Deccan Chronicle under whom [the accused] had worked) … This soon moved on to become lewd comments on my appearance and clothes thus bordering on sexual harassment.” These comments included remarks such as “you are looking so good in this dress that I want to kiss you” and “sit properly in the chair so that I can see you properly”.

Two days after her complaint, the accused was asked to go on leave and subsequently, was asked to quit.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Priya said, “For me, I thought that the ordeal ended with him being let go. But I was so mistaken. Most of the men started looking at me as a woman who would go and complain. Very flippantly, I was asked if they could talk to me, hang around with me or if I would file a complaint of sexual harassment against them.”

Other colleagues taunted Priya with statements like, “Hope you are happy that you ruined a guy’s life for a harmless joke, you should always carry that guilt with you.” Priya says, “I was constantly taunted, made to feel guilty and shamed, but this guilt and shame should have been his [the accused].”

Being on the receiving end of disbelief, ridicule and anger of peers and colleagues is a serious deterrent when it comes to reporting sexual harassment in the workplace. On October 6, Avantika Mehta, a former lawyer who was a legal correspondent with Hindustan Times in 2014, came forward with allegations against Prashant Jha, who was national political editor and chief of bureau of Hindustan Times. At the time of the incident, Mehta was not employed with the newspaper. Writing about the incident, Mehta states she did everything to “not piss him off” when he said he wanted to hit on her, because she knew that “pissing off a man who’s considered a darling journalist will have shit repucuasions [sic] for my career and/or I’ll be at the receiving end of his friend’s wrath or laughter”.

She also told him he was making her uncomfortable but Jha continued along the same lines.

Sandhya Menon wrote about another current employee of Hindustan Times, their senior associate editor Manojan Ramachandran. In 2005, when both Menon and Ramachandran were with DNA, Ramachandran had texted her, saying, “I want to fuck you.”

When Newslaundry contacted Hindustan Times general counsel Dinesh Mittal, we were informed that Jha has been asked to step down from all managerial positions. He will, however, continue to be an employee at Hindustan Times pending further investigations. Mittal also stated that the POSH committee is investigating Ramachandran’s case as well.

Another allegation of sexual harassment has been made against a former editor (South India) at India Today. The harassment allegedly began in October 2014 up till January 2015, when the 24-year-old employee resigned. The employee wrote, “He started off with saying that he is lonely, wife has no time … He would be persistent until I yielded and if I would say that this is inappropriate or that I don’t like it, he would immediately say things like, oh this is just a joke, don’t be so judgemental, I’m just saying this because I think you are my friend etc.”

When the reporter was unresponsive to the editor’s messages, her stories wouldn’t be aired, she alleged, adding, “Since I had fought a lot to get in this field … I thought if I just agreed, I would be able to do my work.” This shame and guilt of having complied with the editor’s advances on texts made the reporter quit her job. She said, “That made me so ashamed of myself. One day I just quit the job and never went back to journalism. My fault was that I complied.”

On October 9, the India Today Group issued a statement in regards to the sexual harassment allegations made on social media.

Journalist Raksha Kumar, who had written a 2014 piece in The Hindu about harassment she’d faced, decided to reiterate her experience and name the person—journalist Aayush Soni. Kumar wrote on Twitter, “A young freelance reporter told me she had faced a similar incident near Lodhi Road. She said her abuser was an Ivy League graduate, who seemed to brag about being friendly with all the senior editors in Delhi … She didn’t have reasons to distrust him as he was being regularly published by national and international publications.” Realising that Soni’s actions had continued unabated, Kumar decided to name him to another reporter who would “do due diligence in seeking his response and out him”. She told this correspondent that the person in question is Aayush Soni.

Newslaundry spoke to two other women, a freelance journalist and a Mumbai-based researcher—all part of the same women journalists’ group as Kumar—who alleged that Soni made unwarranted advances despite their refusal. In individual conversations with this correspondent, both women confirmed three things: they had met Soni on a dating app, they had clearly and repeatedly refused his unwarranted advances, and that this behaviour was not acceptable.

Newslaundry reached out to Soni regarding the allegations made against him. His response is produced below in full:

“All I will say is that in the past is that I did misbehave and did not conduct myself properly with Raksha. I will not make any excuses or justifications about it. I have also apologised for my conduct and I have changed over the years. The apology to Raksha is on record and her response was ‘to let go of it’ (can share the evidence too).  Further, this apology wasn’t forced out of me—I realised the harm my actions might have caused and I said sorry out of my own volition. Nobody forced me or pressurised [sic] me to do it.”

Soni is yet to respond to the allegations made by other two women. The story will be updated when he does. It is also to be noted that Soni’s interaction with Raksha took place in 2014, while the other two incidents took place early this year.

Newslaundry has reached out to India Today and DNA for comments regarding allegations made against their respective former employees.

Institutional action

The Supreme Court judgement in 1997 laid down a clear definition of sexual harassment, which was reiterated in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Despite this, as journalist Neha Dixit says, most news organisations did not have an Internal Complaints Committee till three or four years ago. Dixit says, “This is why even when written or verbal complaints have been made, nothing has happened in a very organised manner such that the news organisation takes cognisance.”

Dixit also says this institutional mechanism—or lack thereof—puts the onus on complainants to take action.

While it’s difficult for companies and Internal Complaint Committees to legally take action against employees for incidents of harassment outside the workplace, to someone who is not also an employee, these stories do provide impetus to women within the workplace to speak up. Dixit says, “At least there is some acknowledgement now that there is sexual harassment at work. Nobody disbelieves you to that degree. But having said that implementation is a big problem. Even if you follow due process, nothing comes of it. So if there is no institutional will from within the media organisations or the top editors to enforce it, then it is never going to happen.”

Menon says the conversations have to keep going, and media houses “need to give us the space to write [about our experiences]”. Priya believes collectives such as the Network for Women in Media in India play a critical role in educating and supporting women in media—not just in English but also in the regional press, where they need more support.

Organisations also need to check who populate their complaint committees. Nishita Jha, global women’s rights reporter at Buzzfeed News, says, “Often the committee is stacked with people who have known the accused for a long time. Or the accused often is a person in a position of power, misusing their position, and this disbalance continues to feed into the committee.” It doesn’t help that the complainants often have fewer years with the company when compared to the accused, adding to the disbalance. Suruchi Suri, a lawyer in the Delhi High Court, says if committee biases against the complainant exist, there is a process of escalation to the civil courts—which again puts the onus on the women.

Whisper networks getting louder

It’s important that a distinction is made between what constitutes sexual harassment, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault, and inappropriate behaviour. As this thread details, Internal Complaints Committees under the 2013 Act only have “jurisdiction for complaints that have happened ‘at the workplace’ by an employee at the time of the offence”.

In her conversations with Newslaundry, Menon makes this distinction clear, saying conversations around sexual harassment need to be dealt with more nuance, but space must be given for women to share their experiences and discomfort resulting from it. “You don’t have to call it harassment or assault. It could just be unacceptable behaviour.”

This is how the women’s “whisper network” comes into play—women’s support of each other, warning each other about people they’ve interacted with when it comes to creepy or sleazy behaviour. With social media, this whisper network is only getting louder. 

It’s also crucial to remember that the majority of the stories coming out in the past few days represent a very small section of upper-class, upper-caste, English-speaking women in the media, who have been able to put forth their experiences using social media as a platform. This thread points out some of the reasons why other voices have not joined this current discourse. It’s necessary that a movement becomes inclusive and supportive beyond the boundaries of the privileged, and hopefully, this can and will happen.

(This is a developing story and will be updated as more responses and follow-up information is received.)

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