Looking Inward

01 December, 2013

IT EMERGED AS THIS ISSUE WAS GOING TO PRESS that Tarun Tejpal, the founder and editor of Tehelka, was temporarily stepping down from his editorial position at the magazine following an accusation of sexual assault. Despite the uproar, created in part because of the story’s recognisable names, the account of a male employer taking advantage of a female employee was all too familiar. Like women in other fields, women journalists have long faced harassment, and even sexual violence, at work. For years, they have been forced to compromise if they wished to survive in a business almost entirely dominated by male editors and managers. Those who have had the courage to complain have usually been brushed off; others have quietly chosen to leave the profession.

Condemning sexual harassment and violence is not enough. If we are to develop equitable, safe workplaces for all employees, organisations must strive to prevent such incidents from occurring and must send a strong message that they will not tolerate sexual discrimination or abuse of any kind. This is especially so in the case of media institutions, since the value of our work is derived from the fact that we are duty-bound to question people in power—and in order to perform this duty, we first need to apply the same high ethical standards to ourselves. Ensuring safe working relationships for women should be of utmost priority to every Indian media organisation. At a minimum, these efforts should include instituting the safeguards prescribed by the Supreme Court’s Vishaka Guidelines, in 1997, and restated in the Sexual Harassment in Workplace Act passed this April: creating gender-sensitisation programmes for staff, setting systems in place to deal with specific situations, and enforcing meaningful punishment for offenders.

Few of us at The Caravan have worked in offices that informed us, upon our joining, of our rights with regard to sexual harassment, or warned us of the consequences if we overstepped sexual boundaries. Few of us have had access to a complaints committee of the kind set out in the Vishaka Guidelines. And most of us have seen instances of sexual harassment in the workplace over the course of our careers.

Shortly before the Tehelka story broke, a lawyer deposed before a Supreme Court panel about being sexually harassed by a now-retired judge in the course of her internship with him. After her, two more lawyers spoke out about their experiences with harassment and sexism in their field. Whatever the outcomes are in these instances, and in the case of the Tehelka journalist, we hope these women’s actions will have consequences for more than just their high-profile employers. We also hope that they have a far-reaching impact on the rights of other marginalised and under-represented groups within the Indian media. For our part, we are in the midst of setting up a complaints committee at The Caravan.

The denigrating treatment of women extends far beyond the newsroom, but members of the media—an institution that requires and receives close scrutiny, and derives legitimacy from fighting oppressive power—can and should set an example in the effort to change that.

The Caravan editors

22 November 2013