Asha Singh, the mother of a woman who was killed in a gang-rape in 2012, talks to the media. The case open the floodgates of sexual harassment and abuse claims across India.Photo: AFP
Asha Singh, the mother of a woman who was killed in a gang-rape in 2012, talks to the media. The case open the floodgates of sexual harassment and abuse claims across India. Photo: AFP

Finally, the tsunami of the global #MeToo movement has hit newsrooms in India, as scores of women have taken to social media to expose their alleged harassers.

As I write this, a colleague calls, crying on the phone as a past harasser sends her an apology after five years. Another male colleague calls to reflect on his past behavior. The #MeToo movement is just beginning to have consequences, some intended, and most not.

For decades, allegations were only whispered, with women quietly alerting colleagues of predatory bosses who assaulted or forced them into uncomfortable positions. But a horrific gang rape on December 16, 2012, opened the floodgates for a deeper conversation around sexual violence against women in India, and the Congress-led UPA government immediately formed a committee under a former Chief Justice of India, Justice J. S. Verma.

The Justice Verma Committee looked at issues of rape, sexual assault and harassment and produced a comprehensive report which formed the basis for reforming existing rape laws and ushered in a new law. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, was introduced to close a major loophole in the law that failed to address the rampant harassment that female employees faced almost daily. The Verma Committee even listened to  women working in informal sectors, ensuring that even the marginalized had a voice.

While newspapers and TV stations gave these events back-to-back coverage, they forgot to look in their backyards, leading to a rush of cases that remained under wraps.

The conspiracy of silence

For decades, the media was seen as the only institution in India that could hold truth to power and interrogate those in government and industry. Seen as an instrument to gain independence from colonial Britain, many media houses became institutions that took on power structures and expose corruption.

But sexual harassment remained beyond the purview of any institution or statute and many non-profit organizations created to uphold media ethics also ignored the problem.

As a case in point, a couple of years ago when an accusation of sexual harassment was brought against one of the senior members of the non-profit Foundation for Media Professionals, the group refused to accept the victim’s complaint. She called for the individual to step down as the position was supposed to uphold ethics in the media. However, one of the office bearers wrote to her describing the episode as “…a micro scrutiny of one member” who had been accused. They dismissed her narrative as a non-issue.

All that changed on Friday when a group of women took to social media to post claims of harassment and inappropriate advances. The law is clear that even inappropriate advances are actionable and an internal committee must investigate every incident brought to its notice.

Rama Dwiwedi, a young journalist in Delhi, called out the founding editor of a small Kashmir-based magazine called The Kashmirwalla. In her Facebook post she alleged that Fahad Shah had molested her and a friend at a party. She also tagged her friend Akaknsha Narain, who was also at the party. In her post she claims that Shah “touched” her  “inappropriately” and then proceeded to lock himself in the washroom with Narain. She said he later explained his behavior as being “too drunk”.

A news report on the website Firstpost also named Prashant Jha, the political bureau chief of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest newspapers, for sending inappropriate texts to his junior colleague, Avantika Mehta. While Mehta was initially unidentified in the story, she took to Twitter a day later, to out Jha’s text messages to her and tell her story. She told how she tried to remind Jha that he was married and that the texts from him in the middle of the night were making her uncomfortable.

Others also came out to name Gautam Adhikari, the former executive editor of The Times of India, and K.R. Sreenivas, the paper’s resident editor in the Hyderabad city edition as harassers. But the response so far has only ended up highlighting the serious depth of the problem.

Problematic response

Most of the editors who head the news organizations where employees  were named and accused, remained silent after their colleagues were outed. The few official responses that came out were unsatisfactory.

The general counsel and company secretary of HT Media, which owns the Hindustan Times issued a statement to The Wire website stating: “We will start an investigation immediately and follow our policies to the core.” He also said that had Mehta flagged the incidents during her time at HT “action would have been taken.”

The response indicates that newsrooms have not been able to provide safe workplaces for women, or an environment where they can freely  come forward with complaints. Even though a law exists, along with detailed procedures to deal with such issues, it is up to the editors and the managements to ensure safe workplaces. Mehta’s case exposes this reality.

Most media organizations have also failed to recognize that sexual harassment is an abuse of power. Senior editors have managed to get away with past abuses because investigations focused only the extent of their transgressions, if at all. In most cases, they would be dismissed as “harmless flirting” while the victims would be eased out of their positions. This blatant misuse of authority has never been recognized institutionally.

Ironically, the media, which is supposed to offer a voice to the voiceless, has instead become a tool to suppress the voices of thousands of women who have suffered in silence for decades.