Stop silencing women who speak out against sexual harassment

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), expresses its deep concern over recent retaliatory lawsuits slapped on women who have spoken out and/or aided the process of disclosure about incidents of sexual harassment.

A year after the revelations of sexual harassment in the media, arts and entertainment worlds during the second wave of “#MeToo” in India, women continue to be targeted for speaking up, besides being routinely harassed and bullied online. In this backlash, some women who shared their experiences of sexual harassment and those who supported them are not only having to deal with smear campaigns directed at them but are also being victimised and re-victimised through defamation suits filed by the men they named.

Journalist Priya Ramani has been dragged to court by former union minister MJ Akbar, who has been accused by multiple women of predatory behaviour over a long period. Now two new defamation cases have been filed against women who chose social media platforms to tell their stories.

Artist Subodh Gupta has sued the Scene and Herd Instagram account (@herdsceneand) and sought Rs 5 crore in damages.  Gupta’s lawyers have petitioned the Delhi High Court to force @herdsceneand to take down accounts that anonymously name Gupta as an alleged sexual predator. The relevant posts were already taken down as per an earlier injunction. 

Nearly 40 activists, including journalists and art collectives, issued a statement on October 2, against the Delhi High Court's injunction asking Instagram and Facebook to take down the posts and reveal the identity of the anonymous handle that routinely shares accounts of sexual harassment in the art world. By October 11, in an outpouring of support, the list of signatories swelled to more than 620. Gupta has denied the sexual harassment accusations and called them "false and fabricated."

One year after an independent journalist accused him of sexual assault during the #MeToo movement in October 2018, Ahmedabad-based artist and filmmaker Pravin Mishra has filed a defamation suit against her. Mishra has termed the account “malicious and defamatory” and sought Rs 10 crore in damages. 

The NWMI believes that these retaliatory lawsuits will have a chilling effect on women and deter them from speaking up in the future. It is apparent that the impact of these lawsuits is the creation of an atmosphere of intimidation and the further harassment and vilification of women who have sought some measure of justice by making their ordeals public.  The lawsuits also attempt to intimidate their lawyers and supporters.

These suits follow the trend set by the civil defamation cases filed in January 2014 by former Supreme Court judge Swatanter Kumar against an intern who accused him of sexual harassment, and in April 2016 by former executive vice chairman of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) Rajendra Pachauri  against the lawyer representing women who said they had been sexually harassed by Pachauri. In the same year, after over 20 women disclosed experiences of sexual harassment in a blog called ‘I was harassed by Manik Katyal’, photographer Manik Katyal, founder and editor of Emaho magazine, filed a civil defamation suit against 36 individuals and intermediaries (including Facebook and WordPress). 

These cases continue to pose an immense drain on the time, energy and finances of women who have been subjected to the long-drawn out legal procedures.

The professions of journalism, entertainment and the arts are structured in ways that enable a system of patronage and privilege in which women pay a heavy professional and personal price for speaking out against sexual harassment, especially by senior men in power. Given these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine women approaching the police to register their complaints. Such action could well sound a death knell for their budding careers.

When in-house redressal mechanisms are still largely absent or woefully inadequate, women subjected to sexual harassment literally have nowhere to go and fear severe backlash for disclosure. Is it surprising then that they often choose anonymity while telling their stories?

In a statement dated October 9, 2019, the Khoj International Artists Association, of which Subodh Gupta was a founder and a Board member until he was asked to step down, recognises the “professional and social compulsions and institutional shortcomings that deter women from subjecting themselves to complaint and inquiry proceedings, the factors that deter women from identifying themselves, the fear of retaliation, as well as the difficulty in speaking out.”

It is deeply concerning that the law, which is supposed to enable the rights of the vulnerable and marginalised, appears instead, in these cases, to be deployed to silence women who raise issues such as sexual harassment and protest against misuse of power.

The NWMI also questions the constitutionality of the criminal defamation law, set out under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code,  and urges a review of this colonial era legislation that is often used to muzzle free speech.  While the former Union minister filed a private criminal defamation case, Gupta and Mishra have used the civil law route. However, the damages they are claiming are clearly meant to threaten and punish women who have spoken out and scare off any who plan to do so.

It is also immensely worrying that the court has directed that the identity of those behind the handle @herdsceneand be revealed. Such disclosures seem to be contrary to the public interest and the larger social good.  They also erode their right to privacy.

The NWMI stands by the survivors and women who have supported them and/or  spoken out against sexual harassment and denounces these SLAPP suits aimed at silencing them. 

We believe it is important to seek  an alternative route to address complaints of sexual harassment that does not push the process of speaking out towards the destructive and defeating approach of defamation cases that are aimed at  suppression and silencing rather than at addressing the real, serious issues raised by #MeToo disclosures.

The NWMI urges institutions, media houses, associations,  networks and creative spaces for the arts, media and entertainment to evolve mechanisms to seriously and sincerely  address the undeniable reality of rampant and pervasive sexual harassment in creative ways that not only avoid intimidation of survivors but ultimately provide safe spaces for them to seek justice. 

The Network of Women in Media, India 

October 14, 2019