Bearing Witness to the Genesis and Evolution of the NWMI
by Ammu Joseph and Laxmi Murthy
Faced with a breach of copyright by an online publication that has used her photograph without paying for it, a photojournalist posts a request on the yahoogroup, and promptly receives a contact from a fellow member. The publication takes down the photograph and apologises. A brief discussion about copyright and intellectual property ensues on the yahoogroup.
A young journalist shares her experience of persuading an international media outlet to hold back her significant story, based on an exclusive, potentially explosive interview, until she had helped the vulnerable interviewee to secure police protection. She receives appreciation from colleagues and a debate on professional imperatives and ethical practice is initiated.
A forwarded global survey about ‘fixers’ and international correspondents leads to a vibrant discussion in the group about the inequalities among newsgatherers in international, national and local media.
An older journalist thanks a senior colleague for having shared information that enabled her to attend the media session of an international conference on water and sustainable development saying, “This is another example of the strength, cooperation and good will our network encourages among members.”
An animated discussion about whether or not Hillary Clinton is a feminist, and whether her policies are going to benefit the world, engages members of the WhatsApp group.
These posts triggered animated comments from journalists located in different parts of the country, working in a range of media in various languages: a typical week on the long-established yahoogroup and more recent WhatsApp group of the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI).
The NWMI is a 14-year-old association that seeks to provide a forum for women in media professions to share information and resources, exchange ideas, uphold media standards and ethics, and promote gender equality within the media as well as society.
The informal collective emerged through a long, slow, participatory, bottom-up process of network building that built upon earlier initiatives by media women in different parts of India. In the first phase (2000-2002), three regional workshops were held: in Bangalore (November 2000), Jaipur (March 2001) and Shillong (September 2001). These meetings sought to determine whether or not women journalists across the country really wished to come together and, if so, for what purpose and towards what end. Several local networks came into being as a result of the regional meetings; journalists from Bihar who had attended the Jaipur meeting went back and organised a large state-level meeting of women journalists a few months later.
The subsequent first national meeting in Delhi brought together over 100 media women from 16 states and the national capital to discuss a variety of issues relating to the media, as well as to decide on the character and form of the proposed network. The NWMI was collectively conceptualised, unanimously endorsed and formally launched on 30 January 2002.
Both the national and the local media women’s networks aim to fulfil multiple objectives, both professional and societal. Apart from their obvious function as a forum for addressing issues related to the media as a workplace, they facilitate career advancement through the sharing of valuable information, contacts, tips and leads, as well as mentoring. In a competitive and increasingly cut-throat professional world, the network offers solidarity and support, recognising achievements of fellow members, sympathising with those who have had bad experiences and helping them overcome difficulties. The solidarity the network provides to independent freelance journalists with no fixed workplace, is particularly significant.
Launched in 2003, the NWMI website (www.nwmindia.org) has slowly evolved into an interesting, useful and effective platform that seeks to promote both professional and personal enrichment. A national e-group was set up after the annual meeting in Hyderabad in 2005 and has become an active forum for discussions on the media, gender and much else. The NWMI also has a Facebook page and a Twitter handle. A WhatasApp group launched in October 2016 is the latest medium for quick and dynamic exchanges of views and opinions. In addition, the network has established a tradition of annual or, sometimes, bi-annual national meetings where members can meet each other and interact face to face.
Loose Structure, Tight Funding
The NWMI is a voluntary, informal, non-hierarchical, participatory collective that has no institutional affiliation, infrastructure or paid staff. Decision-making has been transparent and largely consensus-based, following extensive deliberation. It was in 2001, at the ‘mini’ national meeting in Bangalore, that a ‘Working Council’ emerged as a means to expedite decision-making, especially over matters that required a quick response, such as issuing statements and sending letters on behalf of the network. The Working Council consists of co-ordinators representating each of the local chapters, and a few additional members representing the national network.
Local networks that have emerged in a number of cities like Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Bhubaneshwar, Delhi, Hyderabad, Imphal, Mumbai, Kochi, Kolkata, Kozhikode, Pune and Thiruvananthapuram, meet periodically and organise special events such as film screenings, talks, seminars, book launches - especially of members’ publications, exhibitions and music performances.
It has been understood from the beginning that local networks would be autonomous and free to evolve their own identities, structures and modes of functioning, as well as their own priorities and programmes. Many local groups have their own e-groups. Through their informal association with the national network, members of local groups have the benefit of being loosely connected to a larger community of colleagues across the country, gaining strength and confidence from each others’ knowledge and experiences.
Both local groups and the national network occasionally collaborate with other institutions to organise events. For example, in Bangalore the network has partnered with Media Watch Bengaluru to hold periodic events focusing on current issues concerning the media. NWM-Mumbai has co-organised events with the Press Club and the Centre for Education and Documentation, among others. Bengalnet has collaborated with Jadavpur University’s Department of Media Studies and Maitree, a network of women’s groups.
The NWMI is almost entirely dependent on members’ contributions of time, energy and money. Modest annual subscription fees have been introduced by some local networks to meet local needs, and members pay for their own travel to and registration fees at the periodic national meetings. Funds for national meetings are raised by local networks from a variety of sources: corporates, media houses, small businesses, donor agencies, state governments, semi-government media academies, press clubs, journalist unions, as well as individuals (and combinations of these) have provided sponsorship or support of various kinds at various times.
Intense debates have accompanied the choice of funding sources for national meetings and crucial questions are raised for discussion: Will the source attempt to influence the agenda of the meeting? Will it try to determine or impact our stories? What does the donor gain by providing us with funds? Does the donor have a long-term strategy to influence media discourse? Would there be a quid pro quo in some form? Would individual members and their personal or professional ethics be compromised by association with the source? How do we maintain our ethics, credibility and integrity as individuals and as a network? There are no easy answers, but the process of respectful and transparent discussion is greatly valued and encouraged. And there has always been one non-negotiable requirement: whatever the funding sources may be, they are not allowed to determine the agenda of NWMI meetings, including topics discussed and speakers invited.
National Meetings: Merry and Meaningful
The periodic national-level meetings of the NWMI, held in different parts of the country almost every year since 2002, have become an eagerly anticipated feature of network activity. Each meeting is planned and organised by volunteer members of local networks, who somehow make the time and summon up the energy and enthusiasm to do so in the midst of their own professional work and other preoccupations. These meetings constitute a unique opportunity for media women - senior journalists and fresh entrants - from across the country, working in different media, in a variety of languages, to meet, get to know each other, and discuss issues of common interest, as well as share lighter moments, let down their hair, dance and sing. The multiple purposes of these gatherings include:
Providing a forum for media women from across the country to interact; build relationships and contacts; exchange information, experiences and views relating to the profession and society.
Enhancing the knowledge base and understanding of women in media on a wide range of current events and issues, especially but not only those related to gender and media, with a view to improving awareness among media professionals and, in the process, promoting better media coverage of various subjects.
Strengthening the network and giving it direction so that it can play a proactive role in the effort to ensure that the media continue to function as the Fourth Estate and fulfil their vital role in the promotion of democracy and justice.
Participants pay for their own travel to the meeting venue and also contribute registration fees towards expenses (which are kept to a minimum by using relatively inexpensive facilities for both the meeting and accommodation). Many also volunteer to pay extra fees to facilitate the participation of women working in grassroots community media who require such assistance. Local networks often make financial contributions towards the expenses of these meetings – sometimes from their own meagre resources, at other times through voluntary contributions from individual members – as a token of support and solidarity.
Keynote speakers with vast experience in the media arena or on other current topics, are an added attraction of each national meeting.
Some Highlights of Past NWMI National Meetings
Delhi, 2002: The NWMI is born.
Keynote Address by Aruna Roy: ‘The Media and The Right to Information’
Panel discussion: Women Covering Conflict, chaired by Harish Khare, deputy editor, The Hindu. Speakers included Jill McGivering (BBC), Catherine Philip (The Times, UK), Padma Rao (Der Spiegel), Aasha Khosa (The Indian Express) and Barkha Dutt (NDTV)
Major theme addressed: ‘Another Journalism is Possible’ (The meet coincided with the World Social Forum, the theme of which was‘Another World is Possible’)
Topics discussed included: Media monitoring and activism, participation of women from Dalit and Muslim communities in the media.
Panel discussion: ‘Media, War and Conflict: Will the Media in South Asia give Peace a Chance?’ (among the guest speakers were well-known media women from several South Asian countries)
Keynote Address by internationally renowned feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem: ‘The Current Campfire’
Ruth Manorama, well-known women’s rights and dalit rights activist also speaks and gives away the inaugural Anupama Jayaraman Award for young women journalists.
Keynote address by Mallika Sarabhai: ‘Can responsible media steer the world?’
Panel Discussion: Media, Security forces and Democracy - held at the National Defence Academy (NDA) campus, in Khadakvasla near Pune.
Mainland mediawomen visit marginalised Manipur, experience weeks-long curfew first hand, witness the annual release from hospital of Irom Sharmila and discuss the media and journalism in the state with editors and other journalists in Imphal.
Keynote Address by Aruna Roy: 'Media must make the voice of the people heard'
Panel discussion on ‘Media, ethics and paid news’ with Mrinal Pande, TN Ninan, and editors of Malayalam newspapers participating. Public statement: ‘NWMI condemns the phenomenon of "Paid News”.’
NWMI representatives from various cities meet in Bangalore to discuss internal issues.
Functioning is streamlined by setting up a Working Council.
Mumbai, 2013: 10th Anniversary Meet
Main theme: ‘The media and gender violence’ (in the aftermath of the gangrape in Delhi in December 2012), with sessions focusing on violence against women in different contexts.
Keynote address by Ela Bhatt, founder, Self-Employed Women’s Association and Narayan Desai, Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapith.
Public Statement: “Treat Freelance Journalists as Media Professionals”
Detailed reports on NWMI national meetings available here: http://www.nwmindia.org/about-us/national-meet-news
The Anupama Jayaraman Memorial Award
The NWMI collaborated with the Bangalore-based Jayaraman family in instituting the Anupama Jayaraman Memorial Award for young women journalists. The Award was set up in memory of Anupama Jayaraman, a young and promising journalist who passed away in January 2006. Anupama was not only multi-talented and energetic, she also demonstrated a keen interest in issues of human rights and social justice. The Award – a citation and small cash prize – was set up to encourage and honour young women journalists who, like her, believe in meaningful journalism and have the courage and determination to write on issues relating to human rights and social justice. The Award was presented to young women journalists covering women serving in the CRPF; public health services; khap panchayats; child labour and other socially relevant issues. Unfortunately, the Award was discontinued in 2010 due to logistical issues.
Making a Difference
The network helps highlight important issues relating to media standards and ethics, as well as the vital role of the media in society, especially in a developing, democratic and pluralistic country like India. One way in which the NWMI intervenes publicly in affairs relating to the media in general, and the media and women in particular, is through statements issued from time to time on various matters of concern, ranging from questionable media coverage of particular events and issues to instances of professional and sexual harassment in media workplaces, and questions of safety on the job.
Recent Examples of NWMI Interventions:
Combating Sexual Harassment of Women Journalists
Petitioning the Press Information Bureau, Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Women and Child Development to withold accreditation of Rupesh Samant, formerly of the Press Trust of India (PTI), to the BRICS Summit in Goa (Oct 15-16). Following sustained advocacy by the NWMI, Samant – accused by several women journalists and media staff of sexual harassment – was denied accreditation. (October 2016) This action was taken after several representations to the PTI management about the allegations against Rupesh Samant, registered as First Information Reports with the police. (January-August 2016)
Demanding institutional redress of sexual harassment and assault of women journalists, in connection with developments at the weekly news magazine, Tehelka, pointing out that that media houses have a long way to go in ensuring safety for women media professionals. (November 2013)
Solidarity and Support
Expressing solidarity with radio journalists of Roshani, the all-women radio and TV station, the voice of the city of Kunduz in Afghanistan, which was destroyed by the Taliban on September 28. (October 2015)
Condemning the prolonged and traumatic sexual harassment to which the Banda team of Khabar Lahariya, a collective of women journalists in Uttar Pradesh, were subjected to for many months. (September 2015)
Freedom of Expression
Expressing outrage at the attempt to intimidate and silence publisher Indranil Roy and editor Krishna Prasad of Outlook magazine and award-winning independent writer Neha Dixit for an important investigation into the trafficking of young girls from Assam to Gujarat and Punjab. (August 2016)
Terming online abuse of women journalists as a threat to press freedom and gender equality, the NWMI said that the growing phenomenon not only amounts to gender-specific hate speech but also represents an increasingly common form of gender violence and a disturbing threat to freedom of the press. (May 2016)
The network has also made submissions on certain important media matters – including safety of journalists in general and women journalists in particular – to the Press Council of India, a self-regulatory body meant to preserve and protect journalistic ethics and standards in the print media.
Promoting a Gender Perspective
Members of the Mumbai network have been involved in practical efforts such as discussions in newsrooms to improve media coverage of issues such as sexual violence and to encourage the incorporation of a gender perspective into coverage of all events and issues.
A blog examining media coverage of elections from the gender point of view was launched during the general elections of 2014.
A book, Missing Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters (Zubaan 2010), edited by Kalpana Sharma, with chapters by network members Ammu Joseph, Rajashri Dasgupta, Sameera Khan and Laxmi Murthy, besides Kalpana Sharma.
Mobilising Freelance Journalists
Creating an online database of media outlets which commission independent journalists, with contacts of editors, standard rates and tips on how to pitch stories.
Working towards a Charter for the Rights of Independent Journalists.
The NWMI is still very much a work in progress. Since it is a collective endeavour – informal, decentralised and non-hierarchical, with no office-bearers or funds – its evolution and potential impact depends on the participation and contribution of everyone involved. The network strives to fulfil a wide variety of concerns, needs and interests – both personal and professional – as it evolves into an organisation that serves the interests of its members, at one level, and promotes ethics, responsibility and social consciousness within the media, at another.