#Metoo catches up with MJ Akbar and the predators of Indian media

Last Updated: Thu, Oct 11, 2018 22:56 hrs
#MeToo hits Pune's Symbiosis International University campus

Journalists and media houses in India are having their Me Too movement; it is a movement that is only beginning. In the past week, multiple women have come forward detailing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault by male colleagues at various news publications and outlets.

Most recently and notably, current Union minister of state for external affairs MJ Akbar has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment during his time as a journalist which lasted a few decades. Detailing her account in a column for the Wire, Ghazala Wahab writes about the harassment she faced when Akbar was editor of the Asian Age, where she worked at the time in the early to mid 1990s. Other women too have spoken out about his predatory behavior as well, which was supposedly an open secret.

The government has yet to respond to the credible allegations against him, though reports in the press have suggested that the party is weighing their options. The Congress has called for his resignation as Akbar is currently on an overseas trip. The Indian Express editorial has called for his ouster –

"Minister Akbar must go because the silence that has followed the testimonies, nightmarish and credible, of several women against him, has been the most resonant. If he doesn’t step down on his own, the government he serves must persuade him of the untenability of his continuance in office.”

In the United States, with respect to the Me Too movement in journalism, there were a number of award winning, highly lauded and high profile journalists who rightfully lost their jobs after reports surfaced detailing their continued pattern of sexual harassment over the course of many years. The likes of Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, who had significant power, stature and money behind them were regulars on the TV screens of millions of Americans; even the head of one of the biggest media networks in the US, CBS President Les Moonves, was ousted after reports of sexual harassment.

For India, as stated before, it's only the beginning. In light of recent revelations, the Editors Guild of India posted a statement that condemned the acts by male journalists, which read in part, "The Guild extends its total support to all women journalists, who suffered a disadvantage in their careers, physical or mental trauma, as a result of any sexual predation."

It started with the Chief of Bureau and Political Editor of the Hindustan Times, Prashant Jha, stepping down following allegations by a former employee who took to twitter to provide details with accompanying screenshots of their conversations.

Following this, the Times of India’s Hyderabad Editor KR Sreenivas was sent on administrative leave after seven women petitioned the news organisation to take action. The women allege Sreenivas sent them lewd messages, made lewd gestures and inappropriately touched them. In this case, the women also detail how Sreenivas, a man in a position of power, had control over their careers and even isolated them when they complained about his behavior.

Details have also come out about harassment by former editor in chief of DNA Gautam Adhikari, where Sandhya Menon detailed her experience of him forcibly kissing her after a late night out. Soon after, another journalist detailed her experience with Adhikari as well while he was Executive Editor at the Times of India. Adhikari has since resigned from the American think tank Centre for American Progress (CAP).

Other names that have surfaced are Manoj Ramachandran, an associate editor with the Hindustan Times in New Delhi, Mayank Jain a reporter with Business Standard who has since resigned, Anurag Verma, a former trends editor with Huffington Post India and Hindustan Times journalist Dhrubo Jyoti, who responded to a twitter thread acknowledging his behavior.

The courage it took for one or two women to come forward will only help more do the same. An often used pushback against women speaking up is that their doing this for attention, money or their angry. While the first two reasons mentioned are foolish given the reliving of trauma isn’t something you put a price tag on; the last point, anger, is important and valid here as Rituparna Chatterjee puts it in her column for Firstpost – 

“Women are angry. They have been for a while. And now they are ready to out their abusers in public. Women are making it clear that they have had enough and they are ready to call out their abusers in public.”

Women’s anger is a powerful force and one that is far too often underestimated or brushed aside and instead criticised. As journalist and author Rebecca Traister puts it, “Anger at injustice and inequality is in many ways exactly like fuel. Women’s anger spurs creativity and drives innovation in politics and social change, and it always has”. With respect to the Indian media, the dynamics in some ways is different than in the United States. It’s still largely a male dominated space. As the Wire editorial puts it context of a newsroom –

“A newsroom is a fluid space quite unlike any other. Women, especially rookies in the profession, become easy targets of those higher up the editorial chains who have the power to make or mar their careers”.

One interesting point of conversation that happened in the wake of allegations against media figures in the United States is the focus on how male dominated the media was and is; particularly during the time when some of these men focused on covering and reporting on a historic election where for the first time one of the two nominees was a women. It remains to be seen if such a conversation would begin in a similar context to women politicians here.

Going forward, two things will become clear – more women will come forward and media organisations will have to reckon with how they address the allegations. It remains to be seen if any of these allegations will be pursued legally. A reminder here that the rape allegation against Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka is yet to be resolved as the trial enters its fifth year. For the rest of us, who are witnessing and questioning the path forward, Sandhya Menon, one of whom came forward with her experiences offers an important guide-

More columns by Varun Sukumar