The Tehelka debacle may yet serve a constructive purpose if it catalyses action within the media towards establishing in-house mechanisms as mandated by the law. By AMMU JOSEPH in Frontline
IF Tehelka had been more conscientious about observing the law of the land, Shoma Chaudhury would likely still be managing editor of the feisty news magazine. Instead, the award-winning journalist faced severe, sustained and widespread criticism over her handling of a young colleague’s shocking complaint of sexual harassment, assault and more by the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal, and eventually resigned 10 days into the crisis.
Shoma Chaudhury’s resignation letter referred to questions about her integrity raised by people both within and outside the profession, and expressed regret for any inadequacies or lack of clarity she may have displayed as a leader. In her response to the young journalist’s resignation from the magazine, she admitted that “in the absence of an existing official grievance redressal mechanism in office, along Vishaka guidelines”, her “responses may not have reflected the correct formal procedures”.
If an internal policy and mechanism had been in place and their existence made known to all employees, as required by the law, Shoma Chaudhury may not have been in the hot seat as the individual to whom the complaint was made and from whom appropriate action was expected. The young woman would probably have reported her traumatic experience to the mandated in-house complaints committee, which would then have taken a considered, collective decision about action to be taken in accordance with the law. Instead, Shoma Chaudhury seems to have acted on her own, evidently improvising as she went along and facing increasing flak for her inadequate and flawed response, which was also legally questionable. Under fierce attack from most quarters, her only defence appeared to be that her actions—and, presumably, inaction—were based on outrage, solidarity, feminist principles, et al, when they should instead —or in addition—have been informed by the law.
The point is that while the existing laws relating to sexual harassment in the workplace (SHW) reflect the awareness and understanding of the issue fostered by feminist analysis and activism over many years, their application is not dependent on individual beliefs and value systems. Feminists and non-feminists alike have an obligation to abide by them.
Rights of workers
Freedom from sexual harassment is a vital aspect of women’s right to a safe work environment. However, it is important to recognise that SHW is not exclusively a “women’s issue”. It is a labour issue that involves the rights of all workers/employees. And it is an issue closely connected to freedom of expression in general and the freedom of the media in particular. It is widely accepted that the safety and security of journalists are essential prerequisites for press freedom. Sexual harassment, besides violating women’s rights, threatens the safety and security of a growing number of journalists who happen to be women and, thereby, threatens press freedom. There was a time when managements did not have the benefit of legislation spelling out what constitutes SHW and what employers are supposed to do about such behaviour, especially but not only on the rare occasions when it is brought to their attention. However, that age of innocence—or impunity—came to an end 16 years ago, when the Supreme Court of India crafted what became widely known as the Vishaka guidelines.
The 1997 guidelines were in operation until recently because the government had not yet notified the necessary rules under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which was passed by Parliament earlier this year and received the President’s assent in April (the rules were finally notified on December 9). Both laws firmly place on employers the onus for preventing and deterring SHW, as well as for taking all the necessary steps to thoroughly investigate and effectively deal with complaints about such torment, including prosecution when it is called for under the law. The Act actually lists 10 different and wide-ranging “duties of the employer”. Policies and mechanisms to tackle workplace sexual harassment are supposed to be in place even if no complaints have ever been made and none is anticipated. That they were “sorely missing in Tehelka”, as Shoma Chaudhury put it, is particularly surprising since, by all accounts, several instances of such harassment had been brought to the attention of the magazine’s management over the years. Shoma Chaudhury’s post facto, apparently unsuccessful, efforts to recruit a range of prominent citizens for an in-house inquiry committee proved to be excessive flourishes that merely caused avoidable controversy and embarrassment.
While the Vishaka guidelines mandate a complaints committee headed by a woman, with women constituting at least half the membership and an external person or institution familiar with the issue being among the members, the new Act stipulates that the presiding officer of the standing committee must be a senior woman employee of the organisation and committee members must include at least two representatives of the organisation’s employees and one external person, all preferably known for commitment to women’s rights and/or relevant experience and knowledge.
As Ayesha Kidwai of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who serves on an internal complaints committee at the university, pointed out in a recent article on the Tehelka case, such committees can serve multiple purposes and should not be seen as “a redressal mechanism that is ‘alternative’ to the law”. According to her, besides conducting internal inquiries into cases brought to its attention, a genuine complaints committee with due representation of all employees can play an important role in providing the kind of legal advice, counselling, and institutional support that every complainant needs if she decides to pursue a criminal complaint, facilitating, mediating and supporting her engagement with the criminal justice system. At the same time, it can initiate a parallel investigation into the complainant’s charges to look into the possibility of other instances of SHW within the organisation—by the accused in that particular case and/or others—and take appropriate action as required. This is particularly important since several reported cases have revealed men accused of SHW to be serial offenders who have obviously grown bolder each time they have got away with such abuse.
A newspaper headline on November 22 asked, “Question is, why did Tehelka not take Vishaka on board?” The report goes on to state that “most leading media organisations in the country have such anti-sexual harassment committees”. However, it listed only six news organisations with policies relating to sexual harassment reportedly in place. This is in a country which boasts more than 86,000 registered newspapers and over 800 permitted private television channels, not to mention an ever-growing number of magazines, private radio stations and online media, besides the state/public broadcasters, Doordarshan and All India Radio. And where interviews with women journalists across the country in the late 1990s for the book Making News: Women in Journalism revealed the prevalence of SHW even in the 1970s and 1980s. Of the 17 Indian news companies surveyed for the 2011 Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media—located in four cities and representing both English and Indian language media—88 per cent claimed to have adopted specific policies on gender equality and 82 per cent to have instituted policies relating to SHW.
In the absence of corroboration, however, these assertions can only be accepted with some reservation. Surveys among women journalists conducted in the early 2000s, several years after the Vishaka guidelines came into force, revealed that sexual harassment was a reality experienced by a significant number of women in the profession and that, despite this, few media houses had taken effective steps to deal with the problem in a convincing manner. Each case of sexual harassment in a media workplace that has come to light over the past decade—in different sectors of media located in different parts of the country—has exposed the persistent failure of many media houses to implement the law: few, if any, of the organisations involved had the necessary policies and mechanisms in place. One of these was the 2003 case of Sabita Lahkar.
On November 22, Sabita wrote to the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, referring to the extensive media coverage given to the Tehelka case and seeking to call attention to her plight a decade after she complained about sexual and professional harassment by the then editor ofAmar Asom, a popular Assamese daily newspaper. According to her, even though the management did set up a “redressal committee” on the direction of the Assam Human Rights Commission and it recorded her grievances, the editor was never asked to appear before the committee. The police, too, did not dare to summon him for interrogation and failed to conduct a proper investigation. As a result, justice has eluded her.
One of the few instances so far in which a complainant has received some relief was in the labour suit filed by Rina Mukherji against the management of The Statesman, Kolkata. In February 2013, the Industrial Tribunal decided in her favour and ordered her reinstatement with full payment of back wages from October 2002, when her services as a senior reporter were terminated after she protested against sexual harassment by the then news coordinator of the newspaper. Although she was unable to get justice in the sexual harassment case, thanks to her perseverance the newspaper was compelled to institutionalise internal complaints and redress mechanisms, including a complaints committee.
There is some indication that the widespread outrage and debate generated by the infamous December 2012 gang rape in Delhi have led to more public awareness of gender, especially sexual, violence. The imminent enforcement of the SHW Act also seems to have served as a wake-up call spurring some action towards ensuring compliance. However, the experience of a non-governmental organisation working in the area of gender violence, which invited media establishments in its home city for a confidential training workshop on the new Act and its implementation last summer, suggests that quite a few have yet to recognise the seriousness of the situation and the need to set their houses in order before any “unfortunate”, “untoward” incidents take place on their watch. In April, even before the Act had received the President’s assent, the All India Organisation of Employers organised a workshop on procedural compliance with the SHW legislation, in collaboration with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and supported by the International Labour Organisation.
The letter of invitation says, “The legislation places a number of obligations on the part of an enterprise or any work place, to set in place an elaborate mechanism for preventing and investigating cases of sexual harassment through the constitution of internal complaints committees, provides for punishment and deals with issues of gender sensitisation at the workplace to create a healthy working environment… the issue is highly sensitive and needs handling with due knowledge and information to avoid any violation or penal provision.”
Perhaps media companies and their umbrella organisations will now follow suit. The Tehelka debacle may yet serve a constructive purpose if it catalyses action within the media towards establishing in-house mechanisms as mandated by the law. On November 27, the Press Council of India called upon all media organisations to set up internal committees to prevent and redress cases of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. On November 28, the management of The Hindu announced the approval of a sexual harassment policy to be adopted and implemented throughout the organisation from December 1 and the initiation of a process for setting up internal complaints committees for all the company’s offices across the country.
These are certainly positive signs, as is the recent constitution of a 10-member Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee in the Supreme Court, chaired by a female judge, to receive and decide complaints against sexual harassment within that exalted workplace. This belated development, too, was obviously triggered by the recent complaint of sexual harassment levelled by a young law intern against a senior judge of the apex court, which additionally served to highlight the fact that the court had failed to implement its own guidelines issued 16 years ago.
A few media organisations have distinguished themselves by having SHW policies and mechanisms in place long before the issue became the stuff of front page headlines and prime-time television debates. Perhaps they can and should now play a more active role in sharing their experiences and observations, and setting a more visible example so as to encourage more of their peers to do the right thing. Perhaps they can form the nucleus of a new, expanding media roll of honour. Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and author based in Bangalore, writing primarily on issues relating to gender, human development and the media. She is the author of Making News: Women in Journalism. (The article was updated on December 11.)