The murky case of Mangalam TV and the questions it raises about the gender problem in Malayalam journalism

Women journalists in Kochi protesting against the Malayalam-language channel Mangalam TV. The channel's decision to air an audio clip that allegedly included a state cabinet minister has raised many questions among the journalistic community in the state—not least of which is the treatment meted out to women journalists.
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Women journalists in Kochi protesting against the Malayalam-language channel Mangalam TV. The channel's decision to air an audio clip that allegedly included a state cabinet minister has raised many questions among the journalistic community in the state—not least of which is the treatment meted out to women journalists.
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On 26 March 2017, Mangalam TV, a Malayalam-language news channel, made its debut on Kerala’s airwaves. The channel hit the ground running—at about 11.15 am, it aired an audio clip of a conversation that allegedly included the then transport minister of the state, AK Saseendran, a 71-year-old member of the Nationalist Congress Party. In the clip, a man—Mangalam TV claimed it was Saseendran—can be heard making sexually explicit remarks. “Hug me tightly,” the man can be heard saying, in Malayalam. “Come, remove your clothes, let me see your breasts.” The channel edited out the other side of this exchange—it claimed that Saseendran had made these comments to a housewife who had called him seeking help, and who had later handed a recording of the call to the channel. “A minister who is an insult to the ministry,” the screen read as the edited clip played.

The airing of the audio clip caused outrage in the state. Within four hours of its telecast, Saseendran resigned. The former minister held a press conference that day, during which he declared his innocence and said that he did not have anything to do with the clip. He added that he had stepped down “to uphold the integrity of my party and coalition” and that he had asked Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to conduct an inquiry into the matter. The clip, and consequently Mangalam TV, received widespread attention. Regional and national news organisations covered the controversy, and the clip itself was circulated widely on WhatsApp.

The channel’s decision to air the clip attracted the reproval of many in the journalistic and media community. Several criticised Mangalam TV for airing the clip without a warning regarding its explicit content. Some expressed the concern that the clip could have been culled from a private conversation, and that airing it was a form of moral policing. Others raised questions regarding the identity of the woman in question and why she was yet to come forward. “Is there an allegation or a complaint [against the minister]?” the actor and media personality Parvathi T said during a discussion on a regional news channel. “Otherwise to tap a phone conversation of two mature consenting adults and air it saying it is a case of sexual harassment cannot be accepted.” Several observers also floated the possibility that the conversation had been staged—Parvathi, for instance, cited a news story that broke earlier in 2017, when the Kerala-based news website Daily Indian Herald published tapes that appeared to confirm that Matthew Samuel, a former editor with Tehelka, had worked with his women colleagues to honeytrap and blackmail government officials.

On 29 March, the Kerala government ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident. The state cabinet appointed a commission headed by Justice PS Antony, a retired district-court judge, to investigate the contents of the tape, and gave it three months to submit a report.

The same day, Al Neema Ashraf, who was employed as a sub-editor with Mangalam TV, resigned from her post. Ashraf announced her decision through a Facebook post. “I resigned due to unbearable circumstances, as a woman and as a journalist,” Ashraf wrote. She added that when she joined the channel in May 2016, ahead of its launch, she was appointed to a five-member investigation team. “The profile of the investigative team was something that I did not envisage as part of a journalist’s role,” she wrote. Referring to the airing of the clip, she added: “Due to this incident, an environment has been created in which all women journalists have come under the shadow of suspicion and been humiliated. This is unfortunate.”

Leena Gita Reghunath was formerly the editorial manager at The Caravan. She received the Mumbai Press Club’s Red Ink award for her reporting in 2015 and 2018, and Population First’s Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity in 2018.

Keywords: gender media Kerala journalism ethics sexism sting operations Mangalam TV gender-based discrimination Kerala Union of Working Journalists Network of Women Journalists in Media
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