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.