A series of court judgments over ten fateful days – the Priya Ramani verdict of February 17; Varavara Rao bail orders of February 22 (Bombay high court) and February 23 (Nagpur High Court); the Disha Ravi bail of February 24; the protection from arrest granted to Shantanu Muluk on February 26; and the granting of Nodeep Kaur’s bail on February 26 – provide a glimmer of judicial accountability during a dark and tyrannical time, when the silence from the higher courts remained unbroken despite the loud slamming of jail gates.
It is far too early to say whether these developments, taken together, amount to anything significant in a climate of studied and growing political repression. Yet, as mediapersons knowing that media freedoms are like loose threads if they are not part of the warp and weft of the citizen’s right to freedom of expression, we celebrate them.
There is though an awareness that the bar has come to be set so low that freedoms and arguments we should have taken for granted now drive us into paroxysms of delight. After all, Varavara Rao should in more normal times have never been in jail; Disha Ravi should never have been pulled out of her home in Bengaluru and dragged to Delhi’s Tihar jail; Nodeep Kaur and her comrades should have been allowed to support the farmers’ protest undisturbed.
We have also forgotten, as the writer of The Wire piece, ‘Priya Ramani’s Acquittal, Female Solidarity and the Rise of a #MeToo Judicial Conscience’ (February 21) puts it, that in the Priya Ramani case we are “revelling in a court not punishing a sexual harassment survivor”.
The case also comes as a reminder of the multiple threats of intimidation and sexual harassment that journalists, particularly women journalists, face.
As the Priya Ramani verdict demonstrated unequivocally, newsrooms have the same gendered hierarchies that prevail in the general office space and are marked by power-driven hiring, promotion and firing practices much like anywhere else. A 2013 pilot study, conducted by the International News Safety Institute and the International Women’s Media Foundation, pointed to the most common forms of harassment in the newsroom: abuse of authority (22.5%); followed by verbal, written and/or physical intimidations (21.04%). In most cases (28.57%), it was the boss – usually male — who was the main perpetrator.
But there is a dimension that is unique to journalism and that is its required interface with the public. Some 13.02% of respondents reported sexual violence in relation to their work, of which most of the incidents happened in the field (58.06%). Journalists are required to go to areas that are potentially dangerous, seek out people who are potential sexual predators, pursue information in a digital space that is potentially a site of online or offline violence. Indeed their professional worth – in both subjective and objective terms – is often judged by how far they have been able to court such dangers.
One of the major findings from interviews that the Committee to Protect Journalists conducted in 2011 with over 48 journalists who underwent experiences ranging from threats of sexual violence to “aggressive groping” and gang rape (the majority of interviewees were female but there were men too), was that most of the survivors preferred to keep silent on their assaults. This was for various reasons including stigma and lack of confidence in the authorities being able to punish their attackers. But importantly their reluctance to tell their editors about it was driven by “fear they would be perceived as vulnerable and be denied future assignments”.
Cost cutting measures adopted by even those media houses that can afford protective cover like transportation after night shifts, now prefer to transfer the onus of ensuring safety on to the employees themselves. These have had tragic outcomes as in the case of Soumya Vishwanath who was gunned down by a group of criminals on a joy ride, as she was driving back home late at night after the last shift.
Those who work as independent journalists, without even the notional protection of an organisation behind them, are particularly vulnerable. The gang rape of a freelance woman photojournalist in 2013, in the relatively safe environs of central Mumbai, is a case in point. It proved to be such a shocker that the then home minister of Maharashtra promised police escort for women journalists working in dangerous locations. The suggestion was firmly rejected by the metropolis’ women journalists who were outraged by the paternalism inherent in it and rightly wanted to know what protection was being offered to their faceless, accreditation-less counterparts in smaller towns.
Analysis of data from 255 districts of 26 states collated by the Media Studies Group in 2012 had revealed that only 329 women journalists based in the districts had official accreditation – constituting just 2.7% of the total number of district-level journalists – which meant that the security of service and service conditions was almost non-existent for a category already disadvantaged in terms of gender, caste, class and location. While media establishments are quite happy to use them as cheap labour, they are not particularly concerned about their safety.
Media academic Ranu Tomar, in a recent paper ‘Hindi Print Women Journalists’ Experiences of Misogynistic Virtual Spaces in Madhya Pradesh’, based on conversations with women journalists working in the cities of Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur and Gwalior, concludes that these professionals are not comfortable discussing incidents of sexual harassment because they are dealing with the “more vengeful and patriarchal environment of small cities”.
Tomar’s paper also highlighted the persistent fear of cyber-spaces and social media among Hindi print women journalists. One of her interviewees revealed, “Receiving sexual jokes, obscene messages…through smart phones is a common thing. Male colleagues don’t leave any chance to take revenge through texting sexual jokes…Social networking platforms are also used for harassment.”
Online trolling and harassment is acquiring a disturbing offline dimension. Neha Dixit, noted investigative journalist and visiting faculty at Ashoka University went public a few weeks ago with her experience of being stalked. Calls she had been receiving from September last year identified her “exact physical location” and threatened her with “rape, acid attack and death”. On January 25, at 9 pm, someone tried to break into her home and fled when she shouted and opened the door.
I can only end with the important observations she made in that public statement: “I feel the need to put this on record because where there is a lot of conversation about online trolling, and rightfully so, it is time that we made a sincere effort to up the momentum on offline, physical threats and attacks too.”
Today another generation of young women are entering the Indian newsroom. They come from varied backgrounds unlike their upper-caste, upper-class predecessors, and look set to revolutionise both the form and content of news-gathering and news production.
They should draw courage from Priya Ramani and her two-year legal struggle. The hoary minatorial ghosts of sexual harassment now riding new technologies should not be allowed to stymie them.
Internet regulations: Iron fist in a velvet glove
In New India, censorship is being mainstreamed in innumerable ways, but the government’s latest instrument, The ‘Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021’, comes with a “soft touch”. At least that is what Union Minister for Law, Ravi Shankar Prasad would like to claim. We will have to take his word for it, although it needs to be noted that these rules have been sprung on us not after wide-ranging “public” consultations, not after expert deliberation, not through parliamentary discussions, not through a law, but through a press conference held jointly by two union ministers.
Having a “soft touch”, the censorship powers of the new rules also come suitably clad in layers of muffle. The press conference gave us some tautological gems like “first originator” and a marvellously Orwellian phrase, “media freedom is absolute but with responsible and reasonable restrictions”.
Both men did a great job in presenting the move as an initiative meant to “empower ordinary social media users”, protect the dignity of women, and fight fake news and child molesters, while safeguarding the security of the nation. Now how could anyone have any objections to these worthy aims?
Yet, as The Wire piece, ‘Modi Govt Announces New Rules to Tighten Oversight Over Social Media, Digital Media Platforms, Streaming Services’ (February 25) notes, the new rules constitute “the largest shake-up in the technology regulation space in nearly a decade” (also see ‘Explainer: How the New IT Rules Take Away Our Digital Rights’, February 27). They enable the stripping away of any mechanism the internet intermediary may have put in place to protect the identity and privacy of the user.
The Wire piece also points out that the demand for the identity of the “first originator” to be made public “may require companies to break their end-to-end encryption protocols and pave the way for a surveillance state”. At the pain of losing their profitable India operations, internet intermediaries will now have to set up a formidable regulatory machinery comprising a “chief compliance officer”, “a nodal person of contact for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers” and a “resident grievance officer.” The government, which came to power on the promise of “more governance, less government”, will also have to shore up its bureaucratic structures considerably to make such surveillance possible.
Maybe that’s what Big Brother wants. Only atmanirbhar news that is approved by an Inter-Ministerial Committee. And you thought there is freedom of the press in India!
— Siddharth (@svaradarajan) February 27, 2021
As for digital news platforms like The Wire, as its founding editors have flagged, the new burdens placed on publishers of digital news that go beyond the basic restrictions on freedom of speech (and thus freedom of the press) envisaged by Article 19 and are therefore ultra vires of the Constitution. The rules also deliberately conflate intermediary/platform liability and accountability under IT Act 2000 with original news content creation, where freedom of expression is sacrosanct.
All in all, I would go with the suggestion put forward by the Internet Freedom Foundation (‘Latest Draft Intermediary Rules: Fixing big tech, by breaking our digital rights?’), which urges the government to publish a white paper that clearly identifies the problems it seeks to solve, and follow it up with a truly public consultation “since these amendments will impact the fundamental rights of all Indian internet users.”
Readers write in…
Kiran Bedi and Puducherry
Pudumai Balakrishnan, from Puducherry, writes: “A piece like ‘Ignominious Exit Aside, Kiran Bedi’s Term as Puducherry LG Greatly Helped the BJP’ (February 24) presents just one side of the story. It is important that The Wire presents both sides. Spinning a story just by meeting and listening to one person is not enough. The title of the piece also highlights the “ignominious exit” of Bedi. The fact is that on the day Bedi left Pondicherry, there was a heavy down pour and floods everywhere. This is why even a municipal commissioner did not turn up to bid her farewell. That is the reality.”
Several mails came in from Indians who have job offers but have remaining stranded in India for over a year – “the longest ever ban on Indians by Saudi Arabia due to COVID-19.” The fact that no one seems to be listening to them makes the situation even more galling for them. Parvez Gnaie and Thomas K. Joseph write in:
“Now, even as cases have reduced and vaccines are now available, there is still no resumption of flights or visa services. We have jobs in our hand and visas available but they cannot be stamped as the embassy has only been processing medical visas since August 2020. Please support our cause through your channel.”
K.B. Kannampilly: “Datelining articles as 5 minutes ago etc, may be useful to highlight breaking stories. But in the article itself, the proper date and time should be given. This is required in case somebody wants to cite that article in any other forum.”
English subtitles please!
Izra Naur: “I am from Kerala and really love your journalism. Request you, however, to please provide English subtitles for your Hindi videos so that a wider audience can access them.
Praveen Sharma, Prabin Basnett, Nakul Sharma, Loknath Chettri:
“We are students of Sikkim Government College, Geyzing, who were expelled from the college for exercising our right to free speech and association guaranteed under the Constitution of India. The fact is that Geyzing College lacks basic infrastructure even after 10 years of its initiation in the year 2010. The students have been raising the demand for the early completion of the college building – meant to be finished by 2015 – for a long time.
Students therefore organised a demonstration in the month of March 2020 within the college premises after several petitions and representations to concerned departments failed to yield results. The demonstration ended after the intervention of Chief Minister of Sikkim, who invited the students for a meeting in the presence of the education minister, officials, the media, as well as the leaders of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha Party. The meeting concluded after the Education Department issued a written assurance with a promise to complete the first phase of the work within three months. But, sadly, the work is nowhere near completion even in the month of February 2021. This led to a delegation of 30 students meeting the education minister. However, he completely ignored us even though we waited outside the office of the Education Department for three days. Thereafter, on February 5, we again went to meet the additional chief secretary and requested him to arrange a meeting, but instead of resolving our issues, the police were called in. That night we decided to spend night in the premises of Education Department as we were denied permission to stay at Janata Bhawan (a subsidised public facility). At 10.30 pm, the lights in the premises were put off and the police force dragged us to police vehicle as if the protesting students were dreaded criminals. Various dramatic episodes unfolded after that and the ruling SKM party even called a press conference to label innocent students as “terrorists and anti-nationals”.
Thereafter, we went back to college and started attending classes but the harassment continued in one form or the other. On February 19, the management called for a parents’ meeting. In that meeting, without giving us an opportunity to express our views, the principal handed expulsion orders to four of us, although more than 30 students had participated in the protest.
Such an arbitrary and illegal decision of the college has left us bewildered. Our future is uncertain and our parents along with us are undergoing huge mental pressure and trauma. A grave injustice has been meted out to us, simply for exercising our rights as students and citizens. We hope media platforms like yours will demand that the college immediately withdraws its expulsion order.
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