October 19, 2014

Report of the DUJ Workshop on Gender and Media

Special Correspondent

JOURNALISTS report other people’s events, actions and concerns all the time. But they rarely tell their own stories. A recent workshop on Media and Gender issues was one of those rare occasions when Delhi’s journalists admitted some bitter truths about their own working lives. Several women journalists spoke about the harassment they have experienced while trying to establish themselves as professionals in a challenging environment. The workshop was held last month in New Delhi under the auspices of the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) in collaboration with the International Federation of Journalists. The workshop began with a welcome from DUJ General Secretary SK Pande. DUJ President Sujata Madhok chaired the proceedings, assisted by DUJ Treasurer Amit Prakash Singh. Sujata Madhok said the DUJ has a long tradition of gender inclusion and has its own Gender Council. Several women have been elected office bearers over the years and many have been elected to the executive committee. OVERVIEW Anjali Deshpande pointed out that today it was not sufficient to be a competent professional, one also had to be glamorous. However, said Anjali, if one sets apart the few highly paid female anchors in English language channels, the reality for the average journalist is that they work for small money in miserable conditions. Anjali observed that the Indian women’s movement had created an environment in which women were able to enter journalism in large numbers in the 1980s. While conditions in the English press were better as compared to the regional media, those working in other languages had a tough time. Anjali also referred to a study on the electronic media which found that there were very few women and men of minority communities in TV. SEXUAL HARASSMENT Sagari Chhabra described how she had faced harassment early in her career prompting others to speak on similar lines. One woman described how, armed with a mass communication degree from the United States, she had joined a TV production house and dreamt of a great career. She was forced to quit in wake of advances made by her boss. In her next job, when her work fetched her an award, her boss humiliated her in front of the entire office, saying she had become “too big for her boots” and could leave any time. She stuck it out. The next boss gave her secretarial work to do and gave the directorial work to his former editor's niece. That is when she quit. She worked freelance and over the next years directed fifteen films which won five national and international awards. She also wrote and published three books. In sharp contrast Saba Naqvi said she had often faced advances from men in the profession but had been able to handle it. She had even pushed men away but usually tackled the situation with humour and simply moved on. “I will never be a victim, either as a woman or as a Muslim”. By and large, she said, she had not had personal trouble from politicians as they guard themselves and are afraid of adverse publicity. Saba said that her writing has brought her plenty of abuse from the rightwing and also threats from Islamic extremists! “Online, there are trolls after me all the time.” ON THE JOB 24/7 Aruna Mallareddy said when she joined as the only woman in Telugu media based in the capital she had to tackle all sorts of bias. She said she is still angry at the way some colleagues behaved, making advances, asking her intrusive questions about her single status, even commenting that she chose the wrong guy when she fell in love and married! However, she says, the demands of a 24/7 television news job are terrible. While she was pregnant she worked till the day of the delivery. When her child was born she informed the chairman of the TV company and asked for paid leave, threatening to resign if she did not get it. She eventually got paid for the maternity period. However, her colleague who was on the production side and had a baby at the same time was not paid for the maternity leave period. “The media is just a business. There are no principles. “There are now 10-12 news channels in my state, they all want representatives in Delhi but generally they expect us to use our contacts to promote their business interests. They want us to do PR work, liaison work, not journalism!” Veteran journalist Rashme Sehgal spoke about her years covering the environment beat and regretted that there is so much blindness about the subject in media. She said that despite five major tragedies in the country the government has not even produced a single White Paper on the problem of climate change and disaster management. “We have lost our forests. Our mountains are denuded. Our rivers polluted,” she said. A senior male journalist, Shesh Narain Singh, who has worked in numerous Hindi newspapers and TV channels, admitted that, “Many men in the profession have wrong ideas about women.” He said men, particularly from the small towns and villages of North India, tend to be feudal in their mindset and do not know how to treat female colleagues properly. THE PLIGHT OF FREELANCERS Papri Sri Raman, who has worked at the desk, has been a correspondent and now freelances, commented that having spent some years in Chennai she has found that sexual harassment of women journalists is common in the Tamil newspapers – incidents are reported every three-four months. Personally, she had experienced a different kind of problem. She was an outsider in Chennai, being a non-Brahmin and one who spoke no Tamil. None of the Brahmin journalists would help her, she said. Somehow she would get her stories from non-Brahmin locals, speaking to them in a mixture of languages until she learnt Tamil. Madhavishree, a freelancer said that though she won four awards for her writing and this makes her happy but it does not pay her bills! She also recalled the time when she went to an editor seeking an assignment and he asked her if she wanted to go out with him! Speaking of challenges on the desk Sushma Verma, who was one of the first women to work on the news desk in a Hindi daily in Delhi, noted the many changes in the job over the years. She said a sub-editor’s work has become much more demanding. In the old days ‘subs’ edited or translated copy. After computerisation their job also includes making pages and proof reading. Previously in the days of linotype and monotype there were compositors to ‘type’ out the matter, separate proofreaders and makeup men to make the pages. Today a sub editor does the work of four people but the wage has not gone up WORKING CONDITIONS A woman journalist who spent 13 years in Hindi print and electronic media said that when she came from a small town to the city to work she did not realize that she would have to kowtow in various ways. As a trainee she lost her first job because she did not sit with the boss in his cabin! Male bosses and colleagues expect one to act like a woman, not be assertive or loud. She feels that her assertive behaviour has got her a reputation as a ‘quarrelsome’ woman and after having recently been victimised and resigning in protest it is becoming difficult to find a job. TK Rajalakshmi, president of the Indian Women’s Press Corps, said there is an anti-employee environment in the country. She said the issues women journalists need to take up are toilets, a room to rest in, safe night drops after work and paid maternity leave. The nature of the workplace has changed. Besides, there is no security of employment. She also noted that all kinds of cost cutting measures are being resorted to by companies. Mrinal Ballari, said that people on the desk are particularly vulnerable and powerless. Reporters have it a bit better, she said. She complained that a woman journalist who earns the tag ‘feminist’ may be denied a job because of it. She said even Facebook is looked at to check on the background of a prospective employee! The workshop concluded with closing remarks by DUJ General Secretary SK Pande who outlined the role DUJ has played over the years in the struggle for equal treatment of women in journalism. He said the need of the hour is to work jointly with the central trade unions and women’s organisations to strengthen the journalists’ movement and counter the problems that exist today. A concerted battle has to be waged against the horrendous contract system which was an infringement on the freedom of the press and simultaneously the battle for implementation of the current wage board and the battle to save the Working Journalists Act and to make it applicable to the present 24x7 diversified media.