Speak Up and Support!

09 Oct,2018


By Ranjona Banerji


It took a week for the Times of India to respond to allegations of sexual harassment against its Hyderabad resident editor KR Sreenivas. The Hindustan Times was faster with Prashant Jha who has “stepped down from a leadership role”. These are just two names.

As Indian journalism goes through the #MeToo churn and skeletons known and unknown are tumbling out of closets, once the dust settles we will be left with what to do next. For too long have we ignored what has gone on in our newsrooms and watched, sometimes aghast and sometimes with complicity, as serial offenders have risen high and become legends.

We must therefore confront what we did not do but also work out what to do next. From all accounts, neither internal complaint platforms nor Vishakha-guided committees have provided much help or redressal in newsrooms. They are tokens, at best and active enablers at worst. In several cases, the HR departments are the worst offenders.

There are two issues at work here. First, women who have been targeted need to feel secure or safe with senior colleagues, so that they can share their experiences. Secondly, we must speak out when someone is targeted in front of us. But suppose all we hear are rumours and hearsay. Suppose we suspect that someone is a predator but have no real proof? Suppose the victim does not want to go public or make a complaint? We then got caught up in spirals of he-said-she-said and the culprit goes scot free.

It is here that we need help, not just in our individual capacities, but also from representative organisations and from newsrooms. The silence, the protection of the perpetrator has to stop. The Network of Women in Media, for instance, has issued a very sensible and helpful statement on the matter. It has also, most importantly, offered help to victims. The Mumbai Press Club has also issued a strong statement of support to women who have been sexually harassed and assaulted and says it is in the process of looking for solutions.


And now we reach that most murky area which has been excoriating women on social media: Is #MeToo only about workplace harassment or is it also about social and sexual engagements gone wrong? I find myself torn here. I have had arguments with female friends and with journalists, some of whom feel that some women are diluting the sexual harassment case with their stories of bad dates with friends and colleagues. That the discussion is about misuse of power not mainly about assault.

But where does one draw that line? A bad date can become a case of rape. Who are we to dismiss such an eventuality? How does one draw the line? A sexual predator can be powerful and senior. But a sexual predator can also be young and on the rise, and if not checked at this point, will carry those experiences up the ladder becoming more emboldened along the way. There is no right answer and there is no space, for me at least, to make snap judgments.

I myself have been questioned on social media about unsalutary remarks made by a friend and colleague. However, in this case, these remarks were not made in front of me, the persons trying to bait me are unknown to me (and some unknown to the world) and I was not at the events where these remarks were supposedly made, and nor have I ever heard this person make such remarks.

But while I am sure in this case, I am now constantly questioningly myself about whether I let people down in other cases. We all need to go there. Because there is a real danger of an inter-generational feminist argument hijacking this very important #MeToo movement. Younger women are comparatively fearless, and many evidently refuse to internalise as earlier generations had done. Even women in their 40s find themselves at the receiving end of young wrath, so forget about women in their 50s like me and those who are older.

And yet, thankfully, some older women have been emboldened by their younger colleagues and are now speaking up and outing some very famous predators. We, women especially, but men also, must support our colleagues who have been assaulted and traumatised. It will be difficult because people we know will be uncloaked as sexual predators and enablers. We will know their families and we will feel the consequences. But there is no option now but to listen to the women who are speaking and acknowledging their pain. Contrary to trash talk, no woman in the media has benefitted from complaining. Usually, it has come at deep personal and professional cost.

As to why newsroom tolerate this sort of behaviour and the women who allow men to target others by making excuses for their behaviour — it all points to the toxic hold that patriarchy still has on newsrooms. What role must men now play or how must they reset their attitudes. Convenient words of apology are not enough. This will be tackled in the next column.

For now, speak up and support.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia.



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