The two-day second national meeting of the Network of Women in Media, India, took place in Mumbai on January 13 and 14, 2004, on the eve of the fourth World Social Forum. Held two years after the first national meeting of women journalists in Delhi, which concluded with the launch of the network, the meeting was a tentative experiment in collective organising and self-financing that worked far better than anticipated.
An average of 35 participants attended the meeting at the Retreat House in Bandra (with numbers swelling to 40-45 on occasion), including 14 from out of town (Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Pune; two confirmed participants from Kerala did not make it). A core group of volunteers from the Mumbai network had planned the final agenda, incorporating suggestions from others elsewhere and assigning different tasks amongst themselves and others (much of the organisational business transacted via e-mail in the midst of busy work schedules). With everyone concerned willingly and efficiently shouldering their various responsibilities, and all participants actively and animatedly contributing to the discussions, the meeting turned out to be both enjoyable and substantive.
The first session began with an "ice-breaker" exercise reminiscent of a treasure hunt with a difference, which involved identifying and getting signatures from women journalists with various attributes! Settling down after the fun and games, participants introduced themselves and flagged important points for discussion during subsequent sessions. Among these were current issues relating to the media as a whole and journalism as a profession, as well as matters concerning the network, based on experiences and observations over the past two years.
Sexual harassment in media workplaces
The post-lunch session, chaired by NWMI member Lina Mathias, focused on the contentious issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, which had been put on the agenda of the network, and therefore of the meeting, by a number of cases involving media workplaces that had been reported from different parts of the country over the past year or more.
Renuka Mukadam and Prachi Patwardhan from the India Centre for Human Rights and Law, Mumbai, briefed participants on the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India in what is popularly known as the Vishakha case. They also described their ongoing work in creating more awareness about the issue, as well as in encouraging and helping companies and other institutions to follow the guidelines provided by the apex court —by, as a first step, setting up properly constituted and empowered committees to deal with complaints. Laxmi Murthy, an NWMI member from Delhi who has been involved in the process of drafting legislation to deal with the problem (initiated by the National Commission for Women), provided inputs on different aspects of the draft Bill, highlighting provisions with special relevance to media workplaces.
Drawing on the experiences of the past year, participants debated the role that an informal, voluntary network like the NWMI can play in addressing what is clearly still a problem that continues to plague a number of working women, including some in media professions. While there was consensus on the need to provide moral support, information and referrals to affected women in the media, it was felt that decisions regarding further involvement in specific cases would have to be collectively made, especially within local groups, when required. It was decided that information on sexual harassment at the workplace would also be posted on the website, as one way of raising awareness on the issue among media professionals and managers.
In addition, participants agreed that the network could serve a useful function at the national level by collecting and collating information on the extent to which media houses across the country have complied with the Supreme Court's 1997 order, which included specific directions on steps to be taken by employers to ensure a secure and harassment-free working environment — thereby, perhaps, encouraging more media organisations to follow the court's directions.
The media monopoly: a gendered analysis
The post-tea session featured a talk on Women and Media Conglomeration by Dr Carolyn M Byerly, a visiting academic from the University of Maryland (USA), who was in India doing research for a book on women's media activism and attended the meeting as an observer. Tracing the history of the increasing concentration of media ownership in her country and focusing particularly on the recent attempts by the Federal Communications Commission of the United States to further deregulate the media, which had fuelled fears of even more media monopoly in the future, she provided glimpses of the growing, popular movement for media reform within the US.
Linking the issue of media conglomeration and corporatisation with gender, she pointed out that women were grossly under-represented in decision-making and policy-framing positions within both the media and bodies such as the FCC. She also suggested that images of women and coverage of issues of special concern to them in the media could not but be influenced by the increasingly entertainment-oriented, profit-driven nature of the corporate media. The discussion that followed highlighted the fragmented nature of the evolving media policy scenario in India and the need for media professionals here to monitor and analyse various developments in order to understand, critique and possibly intervene in policy matters that impact the media's role in a democracy and in promoting a just and equitable society.
An optional session at the end of Day 1 had representatives of the World Social Forum and the Mumbai Resistance (an alternative event running more or less parallel to the WSF) briefing interested participants on their respective events, with special reference to arrangements and opportunities for media coverage.
Wanted: new, improved journalism
Taking off from the WSF slogan —"Another World is Possible" —the morning session of the second day of the meeting was titled "Another Journalism is Possible." As participants gathered, they were given slips of paper on which to write their spontaneous responses to the question: "How would you describe today's journalism?" The session, focusing on the current state of the media and journalism in India, began with Mumbai-based NWMI member Kalpana Sharma providing an overview of recent shifts in the media's priorities and preoccupations and the specific impact of these developments on the news media, traditionally referred to as the Fourth Estate because of its critical role as one of the pillars of democracy.
When fellow Mumbaikar Sameera Khan read out participants' views on today's journalism it was clear that most shared a dim view of the present situation. They were obviously unhappy with the media's apparently diminishing sense of social responsibility and promotion of consumerist values, the predominance of celebrity and lifestyle journalism, the individual success story orientation of the minimal coverage given to serious issues, and so on. During the ensuing discussion, however, a number of participants also highlighted the need to acknowledge and build on the few positive developments that had taken place in recent years, especially with respect to media coverage of at least some issues relating to gender.
Another Mumbai-based member, Amrita Shah, used responses to the Soul Search questions posted on the NWMM listserve and the NWMI website over the past few months to spark off a discussion on what could be done about the apparent erosion of ethics and standards in media practice.
This led on to the question of management practices and employment patterns within media organisations. Following an illustrated report on the current predicament of some employees of a major press establishment, participants noted and deplored the continuing disempowerment of journalists within sections of the media, as well as the harassment and discrimination to which some are subjected, especially in certain media organisations. It was felt that even if the network could play only a limited role in the struggle against injustices and malpractices in employment/management, it must lend its voice to the call for common minimum ethics and standards in the treatment of media employees.
The targeting of media professionals perceived as secular by communal/ sectarian forces was another issue brought up for discussion. Journalists based outside major metropolises, especially in areas where such forces wield power and where conflicts are frequent, if not endemic, obviously feel particularly threatened; they talked about the taunts and intimidation to which they are now routinely subjected in the course of their work. Again, it was felt that support from the network in times of trouble (e.g., the statement issued when an NWMI member and other journalists were manhandled during the violence in Gujarat in 2002) was useful not only for the morale of the individual(s) concerned but also in terms of making them feel less vulnerable to attack.
The session ended with participants endorsing the notion that another journalism is indeed necessary and must be made possible.
The nuts and bolts of networking
The final session of the meeting, in the afternoon of the second day, was devoted to organisational matters. Among the issues discussed during this concluding session — facilitated by Vasanthi Hariprakash, Ammu Joseph and M Radhika from Bangalore — were the pros and cons of the informal structure and collective style of functioning adopted after considerable debate during the first national meeting in January 2002. In the light of experiences over the past two years, most participants felt that, despite the obvious stumbling blocks and bottlenecks in the chosen path, there were enough examples of the effectiveness and benefits of joint ownership and responsibility (including the relatively smooth, creative and painless way in which the meeting itself was collectively organised) to make the experiment worth sustaining.
With regard to the relationship between networks at the local and national levels, the independent profiles and autonomy of local groups was reaffirmed. At the same time, it was felt that more regular communication and at least occasional collaboration in activities would be beneficial to everyone at all levels. It was decided that an NWMI listserve /e-group would be set up (in addition to the local lists/groups that exist in a number of places) to facilitate communication across the country, supplementing the role of the website. The suggestion of a printed newsletter for the benefit of those with limited access to the Internet was carefully considered and a decision was taken to explore the idea further, starting with a one-off publication providing information about the network(s), which could be translated into different languages by local groups. Participants also endorsed the idea of more frequent — at least annual — meetings at the national level; C Vanaja, a representative from Hyderabad, promised to explore with the local group the possibility of the next national meet being organised there in January 2005. There was also a suggestion that regional meetings/ activities could be organised periodically to build and/or strengthen the network in different parts of the country.
Since the first members of the NWMI core group (four, each representing different regions) and many of the local coordinators have "held office" for two years, it was felt that a change of guard may be welcomed, both by the individuals concerned (an idea that was heartily endorsed by those present!) and by the groups they represent. At the national level, volunteers/ "volunteered" persons are required to form a fresh core group willing to go the extra mile for the network as a whole and to take quick collective decisions if and as necessary. Local groups will, naturally, have to decide on their own course of action (or no action) regarding coordinators, but there was a suggestion that the positive experience, in some places, of sharing the joys and burdens of coordination between two co-coordinators could be considered for possible replication everywhere. The potential benefits of enlisting young, energetic, enthusiastic women for the task were highlighted. Participants also agreed that local coordinator(s) must, ideally, be persons committed to networking, especially in terms of keeping the communication lines consistently open at the local level, as well as between the local and the national networks.
The importance of recruiting more members — especially from the younger generation — at the local and national levels was discussed. Most participants suggested that a wide range of activities, duly publicised, would help catch the attention, stimulate the interest and encourage the participation of more women in the media. It was also felt that more effort must be made to involve students and faculty of institutes of media/ communication/ journalism education, as well as more women from the entire spectrum of the media, in the network at all levels. The positive experience, in some places, of collecting a modest annual membership fee towards running expenses was cited as worth replicating elsewhere.
Anjali Mathur, the Mumbai-based NWMI member shouldering primary responsibility for the NWMI website, presented a status report on the website, the raison d'etre of which has been to empower women in the media and to help build and strengthen the network by providing a common platform for the sharing of interesting, relevant and useful information and resources, ideas and perspectives. She pointed out that the website had begun to attract a relatively large number of visitors, as well as favourable comments from many of them. She called for more participation and contributions from across the country, which would make the website an ever more lively meeting place for people interested in the media and/or gender.
It was agreed that local coordinators must make it a point to send in reports on activities undertaken by the network in their respective places (some of those present admitted that they had often neglected to do so over the past year). In addition, important information about events and issues relating to the media and/or gender in different parts of the country, which may not be automatically reported in the media elsewhere, could also be disseminated through the website.
The vexed issue of how to generate the funds necessary for the further development and maintenance of the website was also discussed, albeit inconclusively.
In addition, participants discussed a variety of concrete ideas for joint activities to be circulated and discussed at the local level before they are taken up for action.
In view of the morning's discussion, there was considerable debate on the profile of the network and what it could and could not realistically attempt to do. The consensus was that the NWMI would continue to be an inclusive platform open to all women in media professions (including media students). It would attempt to function effectively at three levels:
- As a forum for resource-sharing and debate/discussion on media-related and gender-related issues
As a group providing support and mentoring to women in the media
As a pressure group doing its bit in various ways to ensure that another, better media environment is possible
- At the end of two days of lively, intensive discussion on a wide range of subjects, participants repaired to the Press Club of Mumbai for a pleasant evening of camaraderie and relaxation —a welcome lull before the storm of the WSF and/or a return to the regular routine of work.
Postscript: There was an optional session for NWMI members on January 15 —a special, evening press briefing for women journalists by participants in a two-day pre-WSF international event called, "Building Solidarities: Feminist Dialogues."
NB: Special thanks are due to a number of NWMM members for the (often) behind-the-scenes preparations that made the second national meeting of the NWMI possible, meaningful and enjoyable; among them are (in alphabetical order): Anupama Katakam, Sameera Khan, Shubha Khandekar, Manjeet Kripalani, Lina Mathias, Meena Menon, Amrita Shah, Kalpana Sharma, and Sandhya Srinivasan.
Summary of actionable points emerging form the meeting
- NWMI listserve
- Printed NWMI brochure/infokit
- Annual national meetings
- Regular reports and other contributions from local groups to website
- Information on sexual harassment at the workplace on the website
- Survey on media houses' compliance with Supreme Court's directions on sexual harassment at the workplace
- Appropriate intervention in specific cases of sexual/professional harassment, as discussed
- Follow-up on proposed ideas for other future activities at the local and/or national levels