Comment by Geeta Seshu on Tarun Tejpal case: Supreme Court guidelines must be followed

21 Nov,2013

By Geeta Seshu

 

Inexcusable as it is, Tarun Tejpal was not the only person who made a shocking ‘error of judgement’. Clearly, the other really major error of judgement in responding to the sexual harassment charge by a young journalist during the magazine’s Thinkfest in Goa recently must lie with the Managing Editor of the magazine, Shoma Chaudhary.

 

In his email, Tejpal referred to what he termed a bad lapse of judgement and an awful misreading of a situation. He offered an unconditional apology and recused himself from the editorship of the magazine for six months. In her email to the staff, Chaudhury appears to accept both the apology as well as Tejpal’s decision to step down for six months:

 

“We have also believed that when there is a mistake or lapse of any kind, one can only respond with right thought and action. In keeping with this stated principle, and the collective values we live by, Tarun will be stepping down for the period mentioned”.

 

Unfortunately, this is simply not enough. And the outrage that followed on social media sites by journalists and editors is only some indication that the Tehelka management has fouled up in tackling what is a pretty straightforward issue.

 

When any complaint is lodged on a charge of sexual harassment, the law binds the management of a company to institute an inquiry with an independent member on a complaints committee. The Vishakha guidelines are clear on this.

 

Moreover, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, passed by both houses of Parliament in 2012, was gazette in April 2013. Rules under the Act are currently being enacted but the Vishakha guidelines are clear and, as a statement of the Network of Women in Media, India, said, “compliance with the Supreme Court’s guidelines is the very least that mediawomen expect of the media which are, after all, supposed to be the watchdogs of society.”

 

It is highly unlikely that the editor of Tehekla was unaware of these guidelines. Reports in various websites even attribute quotes to the aggrevied journalist seeking an inquiry under these guidelines. Was this done? Who constituted the committee? Was there an independent member as required by law? When were the hearings held?

 

In any complaint, an independent inquiry is important and crucial. Due process of law must be followed so that justice must not only be done, but seen to be done.

 

In the present instance, a major aspect of the complaint: that of the guilt of the accused, is already established. Tejpal has not only not denied the charge, but tendered an unconditional apology. It’s possible that, given incontrovertible evidence and/or the admission of guilt, an independent inquiry would have arrived at the same conclusion – that the charge was proven.

 

The next step is the delivery of justice. Tejpal’s offer to recuse himself from editorship is all very well, but is this what the aggrieved journalist wanted or sought? What exactly did the journalist seek in terms of justice for the wrong done to her?

 

For Tejpal, the ‘punishment’ for his act, couched in vaguely religious terms of atonement, laceration or penance, is that of stepping down from a post he occupies. How does Tejpal’s self-imposed, self-denial of his position, that too for a limited period, make any difference to the charge? To whom will it make a difference, if at all?

 

But, while it may be part of a larger response of a man in a position of power and influence, it may not provide any succour to the individual concerned.

 

The determination of the relief that the journalist will seek – whatever it may be – can only be done in a transparent manner, with full accountability and clarity. Whatever decision is then taken in terms of dealing with a clearly criminal act – must be done with the consent of the journalist concerned. Only then can a complaint like this move towards closure.

 

The NIMBY phenomenon

Despite numerous articles, the media is simply unwilling to address sexual harassment when it happens in its own backyard. Media houses need to come clean and publicise whether they have instituted sexual harassment committees in the work place and whether any complaints have been lodged before these committees.

 

To date, the record of existing instances of sexual harassment in media houses is pathetic. The well-known instance of sexual harassment in Statesman, filed by journalist Rina Mukherjee in Kolkata, resulted in her dismissal in 2002, an order against which came in February 2013, a good 11 years later!

 

In March 2013, a journalist filed a sexual harassment case against a senior editor in Sun TV, and was again suspended from service. A complaints committee instituted by Sun TV did not follow the procedures as laid down by law and did not uphold her charge. In another instance in India Today, a complaints committee was set up but the independent committee member is yet to be appointed!

 

Geeta Seshu is a senior journalist and writes on free speech, women and representation and media ethics. She is Consulting Editor of the media watch site, The Hoot. She can be reached at @geetaseshu

 

Photograph: Department of Communication and Journalism, Mumbai University

 

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2 responses to “Comment by Geeta Seshu on Tarun Tejpal case: Supreme Court guidelines must be followed”

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  2. Guest says:

    This case transcends the Visakha Guidelines. It falls squarely within the purview of the amended law on rape. The position of power and authority the accused occupied in relation to the victim will add to the sentence.

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