National Meet: Delhi 2002

The inaugural session on January 28 — chaired by Nirmala Lakshman, joint editor, The Hindu, and presided over by Abdul W Khan, assistant director general, UNESCO — featured reports on the year-long process leading up to the national workshop, including summaries of the activities and experiences of local collectives of women journalists formed in a number of places across the country in the wake of three regional workshops covering the south and west (Bangalore, November 2000), the north and east (Jaipur, April 2001) and the northeast and east (Shillong, September 2001). 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. (Read the Bihar report here)

A presentation showcasing preliminary quantitative data from a pilot survey on women in journalism provided a glimpse of the situation of women in the profession across the country. The two thought-provoking and inspiring keynote addresses — by Aruna Roy, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (on the Right to Information and the Media) and Dr Krishna Kumar, Delhi University (on Education and the Media) — helped set the tone for the entire workshop.

The afternoon of the first day saw participants breaking up into groups to discuss issues of particular concern to women in the media, which were identified during the regional workshops. Among them were issues relating to employment, working conditions, work assignments, harassment, and freelancing / stringing. The main points that emerged from these parallel group discussions were presented to and further discussed in the plenary the next morning.

A music performance featuring thumris by the well-known Hindustani vocalist, Vidya Rao, rounded up day one of the workshop. A panel discussion on key issues confronting the media, was chaired by Seema Mustafa, political editor, The Asian Age, during the pre-lunch session on January 29, the second day of the workshop. Subhashini Sehgal Ali (All India Democratic Women’s Association) spoke on Globalisation, Gender and the Media; Anuradha M Chenoy (Jawaharlal Nehru University) on Militarisation, Gender and the Media; and Tanika Sarkar (JNU) on Communalisation, Gender and the Media.

Each of their interesting and informative presentations was followed by lively discussions. In the post-lunch session, participants again formed groups to discuss issues of concern relating to the media vis-a-vis its role in society (which had also emerged from the regional workshops).

Among these were: economic liberalisation / globalisation and the media, the special challenges before small and medium-sized media establishments and sections of the language press, emerging priorities and preoccupations in media coverage, journalistic ethics and standards, and trends in the portrayal of women and coverage of gender issues in the media.

The outcomes of these group discussions were also subsequently reported back to and discussed in the plenary. A new documentary film (Hashiye Par Zindagi / Life on the Margin) — produced by the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project, directed by Arun Kumar, and focussing on the widows of political massacres in Bihar — was specially screened for interested participants on Tuesday evening.

The extraordinarily long second day of the workshop continued with a pre-dinner panel discussion on Women Covering Conflict, chaired by Harish Khare, deputy editor, The Hindu. Among the speakers who helped spark off discussions were Jill McGivering (BBC), Catherine Philip (The Times, UK), Padma Rao (Der Spiegel), Aasha Khosa (The Indian Express) and Barkha Dutt (NDTV). Since a number of participants had also covered conflicts of different kinds in different parts of the country over the years, an animated discussion followed their opening remarks.

The special dinner afterwards helped partially revive participants who had by then been on the go for nearly 12 hours! In any case, judging by their voluble, indeed vociferous, participation in the discussions on networking the next morning, they were none the worse for the wear! Two sub-committees had been formed on the first day of the workshop to begin discussions on the proposed national network (the idea of which had been unanimously endorsed during the regional workshops) and the desirability / feasibility of a website for the network (which was established through a questionnaire distributed to workshop participants).

The convenors of these made brief presentations during the morning session on January 30, the third and final day. What followed was an extraordinary, clamorous session during which everything — including the name, structure, fundamental principles and aims and objectives of the network (and each word of each of these!) — was hotly debated until some level of consensus was achieved.

A participant’s suggestion that the workshop could not conclude without issuing a statement based on the discussions that had taken place over the three days was accepted and another sub-committee was formed to draft such a statement over lunch. Other participants met over lunch in geographically-defined groups to select coordinators from each centre as well as one representative from each region to serve as the core group / coordinators of the network for a year.

The post-lunch session witnessed more spirited debate — this time on the draft statement (seeCharter). But, in the end, decisions were taken that obviously had the concurrence of most, if not all, the participants:

  • The network was to be known as the Network of Women in Media – India (NWMI).
  • It was to function as an informal, non-hierarchical organisation linked up with independent local collectives through coordinators (one for each centre where local groups exist, with the understanding that more centres and coordinators would join in due course) and a core group of five persons representing the five regions (northeast, east, south, west and north).
  • This arrangement would be reviewed after a year and further decisions on the structure, mode of functioning, etc., would be based on the experiences of the interim period.

In The Line of Fire

The Indian Express, February 10, 2002

Will the Network of Women in the Media change anything at all, asks Jyoti Punwani

  • “I wasn’t paid for three months. When I asked my editor, he said ‘the municipal elections are due, you will be getting money from the candidates anyway.'”
  • “Can we call those stringers bichari who sleep with the editor and then decide who gets hired and fired?”
  • “‘Soft’ stories are actually those which require the hardest work, whereas ‘hard’ political stories require the least.”
  • “The entire Manipuri press closed down for a week, and not a word appeared in the so-called national press.”
  • “No rural reporting — a written directive saying this was sent to the newsroom.”
  • “When Delhi was paralysed with workers blocking the streets, not one paper thought fit to send a reporter to talk to the workers. They remained a faceless mass inconveniencing the lives of the middle class.”

Does a forum exist for media professionals to discuss such issues? Working conditions and sexual harassment, professional ethics and current trends in the media? Well, it just got formed. Last week, more than 100 mediawomen from 16 states got together in Delhi to launch the Network of Women in the Media, India (NWMI). The three-day workshop initiated by a group of concerned women journalists, facilitated by the Bangalore-based NGO Voices and supported by UNESCO, saw women debating not just issues concerning them as female media professionals, but also issues concerning the current state of the media as a whole.

It’s not just women journalists who don’t get paid for months, be it in AP or Bihar, or who face the brunt of militants and the army in the North East. But there exists no forum for journalists to raise these concerns, let alone try and do something about them. Journalists’ unions are weak, as they are in all sectors these days, and press clubs are nothing more than drinking joints where occasionally a good press conference is organised.

A case in point is the large turnout of both male and female journalists at the only panel discussion in Mumbai on the media’s coverage of the Afghan War last year, which was organised by the informal women’s journalists group there. The coverage of Kargil and the current war hysteria in the media came up more than once in the Delhi workshop, with one participant from Bihar criticising both as a ‘celebration of war’, specially on TV, with minimum coverage given to its consequences, not just in terms of casualties, but also for civilians, for example, the displacement of villagers on the border.

Significantly, this ‘celebration’ was being done by both male and female reporters, though there was consensus that women generally covered conflict far differently from men. For one, they talked to women, which few men did; this gave their reports a different perspective. For another, the human story interested them more than how many got killed. A perfect example was the coverage in this paper of the recent riots in Malegaon.

In the extensive coverage of all aspects of the riots, it was the female reporter who met every one of the families of those killed in the police firing. Their accounts brought out both the tragic pointlessness of the violence and the indiscriminate nature of the firing. In traditional journalist terms, she would have been described as doing the ‘soft’ riot story. The sexist division between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ stories was a recurring theme in the workshop.

It was a two-edged sword: women resented not being automatically assigned the ‘hard’ political stories the way men were. Perhaps never would a male reporter — not even a trainee — be sent to cover a ‘rose show’, just the same way that a photograph of such a show would never show a male looking at the roses. At the same time, women pointed out that many of the so-called ‘soft’ stories that were looked down upon, for eg, the human interest stories, the environment / health / education beats assigned to them, required more legwork, for one had to visit the site and speak to a number of people, while political stories often originated from routine encounters with politicians.

The complexity arose when it became clear that despite this caste system (which existed everywhere, including the bureaucracy, as Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy said in her inaugural address), many women who took their profession seriously, chose the ‘soft’ beats. Cabinet reshuffles or Mantralaya intrigues just didn’t interest them as much as starving tribals in Melghat or the unchanging criteria by which poverty lines continue to be calculated.

The shrinking space for such ‘soft’ stories was a great cause for concern, seen as a result of increasing commercialisation of the media. (again, to quote Aruna Roy, 70 per cent of India occupied barely any space in the press). At the same time, other ‘soft’ stories: eg, Page 3 glamour stuff, was occupying more and more space. The fallout of this extended to working conditions: female TV journalists complained that they were asked to look ‘presentable’ before being sent on an assignment, while if they happened to be good-looking, they simply didn’t get sent, but instead were made the anchor / newsreader.

If this sounds like ‘you can’t please women, whatever you do’, take a look at their working conditions, specially in the Indian language press: no salaries for months, no separate toilets, no night shifts because of hostel timings (which meant no promotions), sexual propositions from the boss just when promotions are due, pay day becoming ‘Terror Day’ because of the drunken orgies by male colleagues (this stopped when more women were employed in that particular paper), daily wages with no weekly offs for TV reporters.

So is the NWM going to change all this? Primarily, it will fulfill the need to reach out and end the isolation many mediawomen, specially those outside the main metropolitan media centres, spoke about to freelance journalist Ammu Joseph when she wrote her book Women in Journalism – Making News, (The Media Foundation/Konark Publishers, 2000). The book was the catalyst for the three regional workshops of mediawomen held over the last year in Bangalore, Jaipur and Shillong.

The Delhi meet was the culmination of these. Already, the informal collectives set up over the last year after these workshops, have made a difference. Kerala mediawomen reported their higher visibility now in the Kerala Union of Working Journalists after they discovered that the state level committee had not a single woman member. But the NWM will not replace existing journalists’ unions.

Women hope that it will act as a support group for victimised mediawomen as well as a pressure group on existing institutions, which are supposed to protect women’s rights but rarely do. The small but important achievements made by the informal collectives show the direction which the NWM will have to take — and avoid. In some states, the workshops provoked a severe backlash against the participants because their proceedings were reported extensively in the main newspapers; in others, the gap between the English and the Indian language journalists gradually reduced.

The most significant gain perhaps was the end of the isolation of NE mediawomen. Incidentally, their experiences revealed not only the peculiar problems faced by the media in an insurgency-riven region, but also that men and women there not only faced the same problems but also supported one another. Will that ever happen all over India?