Report of the National Meet in Hyderabad, January 21-23, 2005
By Ammu Joseph
Among the several factors that made the third national meeting of the Network of Women in Media, India, exceptional were the following:
* The extraordinary cooperation and hospitality extended by diverse media organisations and others in Hyderabad, where the meeting was held
* The participation of media women from across Andhra Pradesh
* The interactions between media women working in "mainstream" and community media
The Hyderabad network, which hosted the memorable meeting, has set a worthy example in the manner in which the core organising team managed to raise local resources to facilitate the meeting, especially the participation of women journalists from across the state. The Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh, the Press Club of Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, a number of Hyderabad-based media companies, as well as the District Collector of Hyderabad, have also established an important precedent by deeming the event significant enough to contribute resources —in cash and kind —to make it not only a reality but an enjoyable experience and, more importantly, a model of professional collaboration and local self-sufficiency.
Thanks to the resources thus made available, a number of women journalists from different parts of AP —including Vijayawada, Tirupathi, Chittoor and West Godavari district — were among the 56 registered participants, besides a large number from Hyderabad/ Secunderabad. The majority of these was from the Telugu media, both print and broadcast. Unfortunately, only a dozen participants from other parts of the country were able to attend the meeting, with the out-of-towners coming from Bangalore, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Kochi, Kolkata, and Trichy.
Among the participants who attended the working sessions of the first two days, held at the Press Academy in Hyderabad, were three unique women journalists who have been working with Navodayam, a rural women's magazine, for three years. The third day was devoted to a field visit to Medak district to meet the well-known women broadcasters (radio and video) of the DDS Community Media Trust, based in Pastapur. The rare opportunity to interact with these rural colleagues was, in many ways, the highlight of this NWMI meeting for most of the urban participants.
January 21 2005
Day one of the three-day meeting began with a sumptuous South Indian breakfast hosted by the Press Academy, followed by registration. The first session began with a round of introductions. The Academy chairperson, who was also introduced, spoke briefly about the wide range of activities undertaken by the organisation, which sparked off ideas about possible collaborations with the Hyderabad network.
The old bugbear
During the first working session, R Akhileshwari of the Hyderabad network made a presentation based on her interactions with heads of print and broadcast media organisations in the city on the issue of institutional compliance with the Supreme Court's guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace.
Not surprisingly, she found that none of them had in place any mechanism for dealing with the problem, which is unfortunately not as uncommon in media circles as one would wish. To make matters worse, many of the proprietors and senior professionals she spoke to were not even aware of the SC's landmark judgement in the Vishakha case, which clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities of employers in this area. Most seemed to think there was no need for the court-dictated complaints committees within their organisations. Many cited the absence of complaints as evidence that sexual harassment was a non-issue, without addressing the question of how complaints could surface in the absence of appropriate avenues for reporting and resolving cases (if any). While some suggested that a single, common committee could be set up to cover all media organisations in the city, others opposed the idea. The list of misconceptions about sexual harassment compiled by Akhileshwari on the basis of her discussions with media editors/owners was truly revealing.
A lively discussion ensued, during which experiences with cases of sexual harassment in media workplaces - including several brought to the attention of the NWMI at the local and national levels - were shared. It is quite clear that media houses are not immune to the problem. Most people seemed to feel that Akhileshwari's findings in Hyderabad could easily be extended to other cities since the situation was unlikely to be very different elsewhere. It was pointed out that the setting up of sexual harassment committees in places of work was a legal requirement, not an option that employers could choose to exercise or not. By not constituting such committees employers are actually on the wrong side of the law since SC judgements count as law until the relevant legislation is passed (NB: A Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Places [Prevention and Redressal] Bill is due to be introduced in Parliament in the near future).
Since the NWMI is an informal association — not a registered body, let alone a union — it was felt that the best course of action may be to pursue action on the following fronts:
* Conduct similar local surveys on sexual harassment complaints committees in media houses
* Spread awareness about the existence and persistence of the problem through NWMI and other networks and, perhaps, through a poster to be put up on office notice-boards
* Liaise with media unions and other appropriate institutions (e.g., journalists' associations and media organisations, the Press Council of India, the Editors' Guild, National and State Women's Commissions, National and State Human Rights Commissions) on the issue.
The second session of the day had representatives from different parts of the country sharing experiences with networking over the past year. The Kerala network is the latest to have joined the fold (see Kerala report). Organised into four zones, with rotating coordinators for each and one coordinator at the state level, it is all set to organise a national meet in the not too distant future (there was a near-unanimous demand from participants in Hyderabad that the next NWMI meeting be held in Kerala!).
On the positive side, most people seemed to feel that the existence of a network was welcomed by a large number of media women in different places. Among the reported reasons for such affirmation were the following:
* Comfort in feeling part of a larger community of female media professionals with similar interests and concerns
* Increased access to information about opportunities and resources not always accessible to people outside the main media centres (circulated on local network listserves and/or posted on the NWMI website)
* Increased interaction with colleagues across divides of age, experience, media, workplaces, language, etc, facilitating exchange of information, ideas, sources and resources
On the negative side, participants regretted the apparent apathy of many colleagues, including several who have opted to be on and to make use of local listserves. As a result, just a few people in each place shoulder a disproportionate share of the responsibility for contributing information and ideas, initiating and organising activities, and keeping the group going.
It was felt that the difficulties of networking media women could be, at eleast partly, attributed to unavoidable occupational hazards such a genuine shortage of time and unpredictable work schedules (coupled with the all-too-familiar hurdle of family and other responsibilities). However, a number of other factors also seemed to be in operation in varying degrees in different places.
Among these are:
* Perception/image of the network as, possibly, "feminist" and/or "activist," which makes some women reluctant to be associated with it
* Increased job insecurity under the prevailing contract system of employment, which also acts as a damper on participation, especially in view of the growing tendency of media managements to frown upon membership of any professional associations that could be mistaken for a union of any kind
* The unfortunate, persistent divide between journalists in the media in English (on the one hand) and other languages (on the other), which tends to make women from one category stay out of a group perceived to be dominated by the other
* The related, false impression that such networks are meant only for "people with problems"
* Misunderstandings about collective functioning, which works only if everyone contributes whatever they are equipped to but often results in no one (or very few) taking responsibility for anything
* Professional competitiveness and/or secretiveness
It was felt that local networks may benefit from taking the following steps:
* Clarify the nature/purpose of networks in order to avoid misconceptions and allay fears
* Make a systematic effort to reach out to women journalists working outside metropolitan centres in each state where local networks exist
* Organise events as joint ventures with other media-related, journalists' organisations and/or women's groups to bridge divides (if any), as well as to broaden reach and impact
* Forge links with the rural women stringers' network (mooted by the Navodayam reporters) -- a novel and exciting idea emerging from the discussion with the rural participants
After a delicious "ethnic" lunch hosted by the APUWJ (with rotis and kitchdi made from millets, served with other local specialities), the third session of the day began with a discussion on the need for more media monitoring and documentation, especially on gender-related issues.
The proposal to collaborate on media monitoring before and after the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (25 November - 10 December every year) was cited as an example. Last time, although several people in different places had initially evinced interest in participating in such an effort, only a team of volunteers from the Bengal network seems to have actually undertaken the work. It was suggested that a more concerted effort be made during the same period this year.
There was also some discussion of the Global Media Monitoring Project 2005, due to take place on 16 February. The background to the project, as well as the specific guides and schedules relating to print, radio and television — recently made available by the India coordinator — were shared with participants. A number of them signed up to participate in the monitoring and their details have been passed on to the project coordinators.
It was felt that there were many arguments in favour of media monitoring by media professionals themselves. And that such work was a pre-requisite for effective advocacy to promote improvements in media coverage of gender issues. The possibility of such monitoring feeding into media education/training, possibly in the form of a gender stylebook and/or training manual, which could be shared with J-schools, Press Academies and others involved in media education/training, was also discussed.
* Forward additional names of NWMI volunteers, including several at the Hyderabad meeting, interested in participating in the GMMP 05 to the India coordinator of the project for possible action
* Discuss at the local network level the possibility of undertaking regular media monitoring (and, if necessary/where possible, taking action in the form of dialogue, protest, etc)
* Firm up and follow through with plans for monitoring of media coverage of VAW during the 16 Days 05
Rural women journalists
The next session was given over to Chittoor-based Ratnamma, Manjula and Bharati of Navodayam to talk about the rationale for a rural women's magazine like theirs (produced under the government-initiated District Poverty Initiatives Programme, a.k.a. Velugu - i.e., "light" in Telugu) and their experiences as "barefoot reporters."
According to them, the need for a magazine like Navodayam arose because the mainstream media rarely report issues of relevance and concern to poor, rural, mainly Dalit communities like theirs and because the literary/sanskritised/semi-official language used even by the mainstream Telugu media is difficult for them to follow. In addition, since most journalists/stringers reporting for mainstream media do not go beyond mandal headquarters under normal circumstances, events and issues relevant to people in remote villages are rarely covered. To make matters worse, they said, the integrity and effectiveness of some mainstream journalists are compromised by corruption and/or fear of the consequences of honest reporting.
In contrast, Navodayam covers local issues of special interest and significance to its audience and is written in simple, colloquial, comprehensible Telugu. And, since their raison d'etre is the well-being of their communities, they are committed to reporting issues that affect them. Apart from covering events and issues relating to farming, roads, transport, water, health, substance abuse (such as tobacco, areca and arrack), and so on, they also write about the talents and achievements, work and activism of ordinary women, which boosts their self-image and self-esteem. The magazine also serves as a link between women and the government, spreading awareness about official schemes and programmes meant for women and relaying villagers' needs and concerns to the powers that be. Besides highlighting the problems faced by people from their economically and socially disadvantaged communities, they also campaign against practices such as child marriage and child labour.
They believe that, as members of the communities they cover, they are able to get fellow women to talk about health and other problems that they may not divulge to strangers. As members of the women's self-help groups that function under the Velugu project, they are able to intervene in cases of family discord, including domestic violence - and, they say, by writing about the success stories emerging from such activism, they are able to encourage more women and SHGs to take action. They also speak to older people in the village to collect traditional songs, proverbs, etc., which are published in the magazine so that younger generations have access to these otherwise disappearing aspects of their culture.
Ratnamma and her colleagues said that their involvement in rural journalism has not only made them more confident but improved their status in their communities. Some of them are now continuing their education through the open university system. They admitted that they do, of course, face a wide range of problems, including the question of sustainability and the limitations of functioning within the official system. They said they are keen to develop and maintain a relationship with women journalists in the mainstream media.
The discussion that followed their fascinating presentations was one of the most animated of the entire meeting.
* Hyderabad network to stay in touch with the Navodayam journalists and explore areas for further interaction/exchange, including the training and other forms of support requested by Ratnamma, Manjula and Bharati
* Local networks elsewhere to discuss and, if feasible, initiate such interactions/exchanges with community media projects in their areas (if any)
The final session of the day had Mr. Arvind Kumar, District Collector of Hyderabad, making an informative presentation on official efforts to implement the law relating to pre-conception and pre-natal diagnostic techniques (the PC&PNDT Act). A lively question and answer session followed on different aspects of the serious problem of sex determination/selection, female foeticide and declining sex ratios, especially in the 0-6 age group.
A magical evening followed, with the Collector hosting a dinner for participants in the picturesque setting of the recently developed Durgam Cheruvu (Secret Lake) in Hyderabad.
After a round-up of the previous day's discussions, the second day of the meeting began with sessions meant to focus attention on women from communities that are under-represented, if at all, in the so-called mainstream media —particularly, Dalit women and Muslim women.
Dalit women in media
To spark off a discussion on the virtual absence of Dalit women in the mass media and what could be done to remedy the situation, Bangalore-based Ammu Joseph made a brief, impromptu presentation pulling together the little information available on the subject.
According to the scant literature available, the representation of scheduled castes and tribes in the media workforce is at present not only minimal but, also, completely disproportionate to their presence in the population. Under the circumstances, women from Dalit - not to mention Adivasi - communities clearly have even less access to media employment than men from the same or similar social groupings. The issue of minorities within minorities in the media is related to the larger issue of the democratisation of the media: if the media are to live up to their position as the Fourth Estate and their reputation as watchdogs of society, the composition of their staff must reflect the plurality of the society they are supposed to watch over, document and interpret in the public interest.
In the discussion that followed, the few available resources on the subject were shared. Some participants pointed out that some journalism courses in the country, especially those in universities and other public institutions, do have reservations for students from SC/ST communities; yet few of them seem to make it into and/or stay in the media as journalists. The Navodayam reporters, who are Dalits, spoke of the support and inputs they require to be accepted as "professional" journalists eligible for employment by mainstream media organisations. Plans for an NWMI-initiated media orientation/training programme for young, Dalit women, possibly in collaboration with media education/training institutes, were also put forward.
* Track Dalit men and women who have undergone journalism education/training at media institutes in different parts of the country to find out whether or not they are working in the media and, if not, why
* Hyderabad network to address the felt and articulated needs of the Navodayam reporters
* Move forward on plans for media orientation/training for young Dalit women
Women in the Urdu press
The second session of the day continued the focus on under-represented communities in the media, with a presentation by R. Akhileshwari on her discussions with editors of Urdu newspapers in Hyderabad. Although there are approximately 20 women journalists working in the Urdu press in the city, most of them are either on the desk or involved in editorial word processing and/or translation. A few are in charge of women's and/or children's sections in their papers.
The editors expressed their willingness to recruit more women, enumerating the many reasons why they think women would add value to their publications. They deplored the religious orthodoxy and social restrictions that prevent a large proportion of Muslim women from joining media professions, with those who are free of such shackles preferring to join the English media rather than the Urdu press. According to them, community conservatism has forced them to create separate sections in their offices for women to work in; despite this most of the women wear head-scarves or burkhas while at work. Apart from the hurdles placed in women's paths by parents and society as a whole, they said, some male members of the staff are also resistant to the recruitment of women.
However, most of them reiterated that they are still committed to increasing the number of women on their staff - and not only because there is a growing demand for women reporters to cover women's meetings to which men are not admitted. In fact, one editor has proposed that the Hyderabad network collaborate with his organization to conduct orientation programmes for young Muslim women to encourage them to join the profession.
* Hyderabad network to follow-up with Siasat regarding media orientation programmes
* Other networks to discuss the possibility of similar initiatives at the local level
* Plans at the NWMI level for creating a module for media orientation/training of Muslim and Dalit women (which can be modified to suit local situations, if/where necessary) to be followed up
Women in electronic media
The discussion moved onto women in specific sections of the media during the next working session. First, C Vanaja of the Hyderabad network sparked off a discussion on women in the broadcast media by pointing out that the electronic media -- both entertainment and news -- had witnessed spectacular growth over the past decade, with regional language television channels in particular emerging as major employers of women.
According to her, the question was whether the large number of women in the visual media is indicative of women coming into their own in the media. In this context, she raised questions about the roles to which women tend to be assigned, and even confined, within television (e.g., presenters rather than directors/producers), as well as about the representation of women in the news (e.g., victims/celebrities versus news or policy makers).
One of the main points made in the course of the lively discussion that ensued was the paucity of information on women in radio and television in India and the urgent need to remedy the situation.
Undertake surveys of women in the electronic media in various places to begin the process of filling the information gap on the subject
Women in regional media
Hyderabad-based K Manjari's passionate presentation of the situation of women in the regional (in this case, Telugu) media also sparked off a spirited discussion.
Among the many points discussed was the huge disparity between journalists' wages in the regional and English press, as well as print and broadcast media. Another issue was the tendency to replace experienced journalists with fresh recruits. The preferred age group of journalists today is 20-25, possibly because they are inexperienced and can be paid low wages (Rs 2,500-4,000 per month). Even though the language skills of many in the younger generation of journalists is quite poor, managements prefer to hire them to present news, cover lifestyle (fashion shows, etc.), and so on.
Once an experienced journalist reaches a level where she can claim the salary scales recommended by the Wage Board, she often finds herself transferred to distant places where it is not practical for her to move (on account of family responsibilities, etc.) and she is, thereby, forced to resign. This suits the management, which can replace her with a younger journalist who can be paid less. According to some participants, as a result of this trend there are no journalists above 50 in one of the leading Telugu newspapers. With experienced hands being shown the door in one way or another, quality obviously suffers.
Most media houses in A P still do not offer transport and/or dormitory facilities for women working on the night shift. Although many in the older generation of women journalists who were determined to make it in the profession worked on night shifts, getting around the problem of transport by renting accommodation near their offices, this does not appear to be the case with the youngsters joining the profession now. They seem reluctant to do night shifts, preferring to work in features sections, where there are more jobs and certainly more regular working hours.
To make matters worse, many managements reportedly get around statutory obligations by not issuing appointment orders/letters to journalists. A major media house issues appointment letters in the name of a news agency to avoid having to extend benefits to employees. Such practices also create job insecurity, which has multiple repercussions, not only on individual journalists but the profession as a whole. Another unethical practice highlighted by several participants was of journalists being asked to double up as ad executives (with salaries sometimes being tied to ad revenue). It is obvious that this can and, in all probability, does compromise the independence and integrity of media professionals and, therefore, of the media.
Yet another issue raised by several participants was the discrepancy in the respect accorded to English and regional language journalists, with the former enjoying far greater status even within a media house publishing in both English and Telugu. This is despite the fact that the latter actually have to work much harder, with multiple editions being brought out every day (in some cases, a new edition every half an hour). Unlike their counterparts in the English press, they also have to handle multiple tasks (including translation, composition and pagellation).
Some participants also pointed to the poor coverage of women's issues even on the daily women's pages in most Telugu newspapers. According to them, under the prevailing circumstances in the media, journalists have little control over content.
Discuss the possibility of local surveys of women in regional media in various places to generate a better understanding of the situation in different parts of the country (which may not be uniform)
After another great meal, this time hosted by the Press Academy (which had also hosted breakfast on both days), Delhi-based Laxmi Murthy helped steer the discussion on media activism by pointing out that there are at least three types of activism that can be related to the media:
* Activism by media professionals on issues concerning work, terms of employment, working conditions, etc.
* Activism by media professionals on other issues related to the media, such as press freedom, media ethics, portrayal of women, corporatisation/globalisation of the media, media monopolies, etc.
* Activism by media professionals on other social/economic/political issues (e.g., gender justice, communal conflict, disasters, etc.)
The first is, more or less, a pre-requisite for the others because without a conducive work environment and, particularly, job security, it is difficult for journalists to engage in other forms of activism. Under the circumstances the three are inter-linked. While some concerns can, to some extent, be tackled at the individual level —through sensitisation, training, etc.—others cannot.
There was some discussion on the apparent conflict between media activism and professionalism. Since the mantra of objectivity and balance often equalises or equates individuals, groups, situations, etc., that are inherently unequal there is clearly a need for further clarification, and possibly a redefinition, of such terms. The question of how to ensure fairness and accuracy in the media also needs to be addressed in a more meaningful manner.
A number of participants also brought up issues regarding the portrayal of women and coverage of women's issues, as well as corruption within the media, as possible, legitimate targets for media activism.
Sabina Inderjit, of the Indian Journalists' Union (IJU), who joined the meeting on the second day, spoke to participants about the current state of media employees' unions and the importance of being part of and involved in such organisations. She also pointed out that even as the number of women in the media had increased, the number of women in unions had decreased.
In the ensuing discussion, a number of issues were thrown up, among them the fact that the trend now is for journalists to be hired on contract, which usually makes them ineligible for union membership. It was also pointed out that journalists' unions were well placed to take on the issue of sexual harassment in media workplaces, and to encourage media organisations to comply with the Supreme Court's guidelines to employers on the matter.
A questionnaire for a survey of the "professional and social conditions of Indian women journalists" was distributed to participants. The survey is part of a larger Europe-India project on "Building Paths to Equality in Journalism" and is being conducted in collaboration with the International Federation of Journalists by the IJU and other IFJ affiliates in the country.
This was the second questionnaire to be circulated at the meeting: the other was for a study on the "status of women journalists in media" being conducted by the Department of Communication and Journalism of the Sri Padmavathi Mahila Visvavidyalayam, a Tirupati-based women's university (under the University Grants Commission's Special Assistance Programme).
It is to be hoped that the findings of these surveys/studies will be shared with the NWMI and other professional/media organisations.
Key decisions and actions
The last working session of the meeting was devoted to planning for the future. In addition to the ideas for action - at the local and/or national levels —listed above under the various subject areas covered by the meeting, the following decisions were taken:
* A national NWMI listserve would be set up in the interest of easier communication within the network across the country. In view of the communication bottle-necks and stumbling blocks that have been surfacing over the past couple of years, the need for such a step had been discussed at last year's meeting, too. But this time a volunteer stepped up to act on the idea. It was felt that people with unsatisfactory Internet connectivity and/or limited access to the Internet would benefit from such a channel for communication across the country.
* Local listserves will, of course, continue to operate and the NWMI website will remain a hub for the dissemination and exchange of information and ideas, sources and resources.
(N B: The nation-wide e-group has already been set up and the details communicated to as many networkers in different parts of the country as possible, with the request that the word be passed on to other interested media women; for more information contact D Kandaswamy at firstname.lastname@example.org)
* In view of past experience with the time-consuming and cumbersome procedure involved in getting approval for/consensus on NWMI responses to events/issues related to gender/media, it was decided that a committee of volunteers would take responsibility for promptly drafting, circulating and sending protest letters about such matters. The idea is that network members from different parts of the country who wish to call attention to developments in their area that, in their opinion, call for a nation-wide response from media women can contact members of the committee to set the ball rolling.
A preliminary committee has been set up with volunteers from among participants in the Hyderabad meeting. Their names and contacts will be circulated via the newly launched national listserve and posted on the site; others are welcome to join and be active on the committee.
* Local networks, and their coordinators, need to be encouraged to be more proactive about sending reports to the NWMI website on activities, especially since it turned out that a number of such activities over the past year, including some success stories, have not made their way to the website.
* The Kerala and Bengal networks have promised to discuss with colleagues back home the possibility of hosting the next NWMI meeting - watch this space for developments on that front!
The second day of the meeting ended with a dinner hosted by the Press Club of Hyderabad on the Club lawns, where a number of city-based journalists joined the party.
Field visit to Pastapur
The third day of the meeting was taken up with a field visit to Pastapur in Medak District, on the invitation of the Deccan Development Society. Click here for a separate report on the fascinating trip, the opportunities it provided and the interactions it facilitated —on food, agriculture and media.
Endnote: There was complete consensus among participants that the core organising team of the Hyderabad network is to be highly commended and appreciated for putting together such a thoughtful and thought-provoking programme!