National Meet: Pune 2008


At the time of the meet, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the city had caused a sudden spike in security and road blockades sprang up overnight. But despite this hiccup, and the constraints due to the temporary closure of the Pune airport, as many as 76 media women from across the country converged in Pune, joining 49 local journalists and a few students of journalism.

All glitches seemed minor as participants caught up with old friends, got introduced to new colleagues, registered and collected their colourful conference bags, complete with files and business-card holders in traditional Maharashtrian woven fabric.

Day one, February 8, morning
Vidyatai Bal chatting with NWMI members.

The round of introductions culminated in the felicitation of two senior journalists from Pune, Vidya Bal and Sherna Gandhy.

Vidya Bal, currently editor of Marathi monthly, Milun Saryajani, was editor of Stree magazine for several years. She is also well-known for her active participation in the women’s movement, as trustee and founder member of Nari Samata Manch.

Sherna Gandhy was with the Eve’s Weekly and The Illustrated Weekly, and was the first woman to become a senior editor with a men’s magazine, Gentleman. She was also the Resident Editor of The Times of India, Pune.

Both these inspirational women addressed the participants, with encouraging words about the importance of professionalism in journalism.

Network news : an eventful year

One of the highlights of the Sixth National NWMI meet was the opportunity to interact with media women from across the country, hear reports about the activities each chapter had conducted, share ideas and strategies. NWMI chapters in Manipur, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengal Network, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Assam, Pune, Bangalore and Bhopal presented their reports during sessions on the first and third days. One invitee from Nepal made a brief presentation on the situation of women and media in Nepal.

Reporting the activities of the newly-formed Manipur chapter, Anjulika Thingnam talked about the growth of the group. A fund had been set up for two purposes – for members to be able to do stories that their management does not allow them to cover and also to trace the history of women journalists in Manipur. Two members of the chapter were elected members of the working journalists union in Manipur as Vice President and Standing Committee member. The NWMI-Manipur also supported local NGOs and women’s groups. For example, when sex workers were beaten up by army commandos, NWMI-Manipur organised press coverage, targeting sensitive journalists, meeting them personally and convincing them to cover the issue. The invitation from the dynamic Manipur group, as well as the need to develop closer links between the Northeast and “mainland” India led to the unanimous choice of Manipur as the next venue for the NWMI national meet in 2009.

Sonal Kellogg, the co-ordinator of the Delhi chapter said that the year 2007 saw a reasonable amount of activity in the Delhi group. A few members meet regularly and the e-group is fairly active. One consistent activity through the year was conducting workshops on gender sensitization in journalism schools. Another step forward was the setting up of a blog for members to share thoughts and be creative:

Ananya Chatterjee-Chakravarty, the Bengal Network co-ordinator, said that the year 2007 was eventful for Bengal, which witnessed major upheavals – over Singur, Nandigram, Rizwanur, Taslima – and the subsequent protests by civil society. A few Bengal Network members were very active in organizing protests, fact finding missions, petitions, and civil society mobilisation.

The Mumbai chapter co-ordinator Meena Menon talked about the e-group being an active forum for discussions in a city where physically meeting was difficult. Kalpana Sharma added that the strength of the Mumbai Network is taking up larger issues of the media. Mumbai and Delhi, she said, are representative of what is happening with the media – heavy workloads, corporatisation and contractualisation.

G V Satyavati and Gayatri, the co-ordinators of the Hyderabad chapter, said that in the recent past, there had been an unprecedented boom in the Hyderabad media – seven more television channels were on the anvil. In the last one year, the network chapter had grown, and the challenge was to get more women from the English press to participate. She said that the group would go back with ideas on how to recruit more members into the chapter fold.

Teresa Rehman, the co-ordinator of the Assam chapter which emerged soon after the Bangalore meeting in 2007, said that the members, from both Assamese and English media, are in regular touch. The Network was active in protest against police abuse, as when for example an Adivasi girl was stripped and paraded on the streets. The Network felt that there needs to be some change in the attitudes of the police, and therefore organised a series of meetings, meeting commissioners of police, the State Commission for Women, and so on.

Sandhya Taksale, the co-ordinator of the Pune chapter, said that the group has about 40-45 members, of which about 15-20 meet on a weekly basis. The group spent the whole year preparing for the national meeting. Sandhya felt that the high profile national meet would help the local network grow in strength. The Pune group is now getting wider participation, including from the English press. Besides planning for the national meet, they also organised visits to village panchayats. Another activity was the survey of women journalists in Marathi press, which they intend to expand to the whole of Maharashtra.

Due to the widespread mobilisation across the state for the meet, chapters from Nashik, Aurangabad and Nagpur attended. Since many women, especially from Marathi press are not e-mail savvy, different strategies were used. Women journalists were contacted through their own offices/media houses. Also, letters were sent through the Patrakar Sangh (union), and through the District Information Officers. Judging from the high participation from across Maharashtra, these strategies seemed to have been successful.

Vasanthi, the Bangalore chapter co-ordinator, said that it was a low intensity year for Bangalore, after the annual meeting in February 2007. But there was frequent interaction on the e-group, in particular honouring and encouraging peers for professional achievements like publishing books or getting awards. One activity through the year, however, was the Anupama Jayaraman award, arranging the publicity and collecting entries.

Vidhulata from Bhopal attended the annual meeting for the first time. She is trying to get a group together, and felt that participation in the national meet would energise and give her ideas. In the run up to the elections, she felt that it would be useful for a small group of NWMI members to come to Bhopal, and make NWMI visible.

The all-women’s team Navodayam from Chitoor, Andhra Pradesh, reported that they continue to bring out their magazine. In addition, they were educating three girls since the past few years, and also brought out a report of crimes against women in Chittoor district. In the last year, the group had increased its circulation from 15,000 to 20,000. They feel part of the Network, and the annual meet was motivation enough to rush to bring out the issue of the magazine. Evidence of their enthusiastic participation in the NWMI – they want to host a national meeting in Chittoor at some point!

Bidya Chapagain from Nepal was the only South Asian journalist to attend the meet. On behalf of the Working Women Journalists (WWJ) group, she made a presentation of the number of women journalists working in Nepal and their job profile. Very few women journalists were in decision-making capacities and the beats they covered included women, children, entertainment. Men covered politics, business, crime, courts, parliament, conflict etc, she said. Challenges faced by women include unfavourable working conditions, lack of security and infrastructure, low pay and lack of trust, said Bidya.

The networking session was followed by an excellent Maharashtrian lunch.

In the evening

At the auditorium of the Pune Patrakar Sangh, the President of the Pune Patrakar Sangh, Dnyaneshwar Bijle, welcomed the media women from all over the country. He expressed his happiness that the Patrakar Sangh was able to support this important event, and hoped that something meaningful would emerge.

The Mayor of Pune, Rajalaxmi Bhosle, recalled historic figures of Pune like Jijamata and Anandibai Joshi, the first woman doctor and educationist Savitri Bai Phule, and remarked that the city was an apt venue for the Sixth National Meet of the NWMI. The progressive atmosphere of Pune, the relative safety for women, and the respect for professional women made the choice of the city as a venue all the more relevant, and also provided the impetus for the Pune Municipal Corporation to extend its support for the meeting.

The Anupama Jayaraman award

Azera Parveen Rahman, 23, a journalist from Assam, currently with the Indo Asian News Service in Delhi, was presented the second Anupama Jayaraman award, 2008. A jury of eminent journalists selected Azera, recognising her writings on the issue of human rights, women and children. Her award-winning story, ‘Children robbed of childhood in zari units’ (Webindia123, April 8, 2007) appeared in The Assam Tribune on April 9, 2007. The article highlights the plight of children working in zari units where zardosi embroidery is done.

The Award, administered jointly by the NWMI and the Jayaraman family, was set up in the memory of Anupama Jayaraman, a young and promising Bangalore-based journalist who passed away in January 2006. Anupama was not only multi-talented and energetic, but also demonstrated a keen interest in issues of human rights and social justice. The Award is meant 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 includes a citation and a cheque for Rs 15,000.

Member of the jury, senior journalist R Shankar, former resident editor of The New Indian Express, Bangalore, recalled Anupama’s drive, and commented that Azera’s award-winning article “shows passion for the issue and demonstrates an effort to go beyond the usual reporting”. Receiving the award from Mayor Rajalakshmi Bhosle, Mallika Sarabhai and Anupama’s parents Nirmala Jayaraman and Mr. Jayaraman, Azera said that she was proud to have been recognised for her stories on human rights, children and gender, but was aware that her “journey had only just begun”.

Commenting on the small number of entries, Shankar said that human rights does not seem to be a favoured topic for young journalists, and therefore recognition by such awards is all the more necessary.

Keynote address by Mallika Sarabhai: “Can responsible media steer the world?”

NWMI Pune chapter coordinator Sandhya Taksale welcomed chief guest and keynote speaker Mallika Sarabhai and mentioned the fact that Mallika, a dancer and activist, had preferred to attend the NWMI meet as a media person rather than as an artiste.

Daksha Warty, Pune NWMI member, introduced Mallika Sarabhai, one of India’s leading choreographers and dancers, in constant demand as a soloist and with her dance company, creating and performing both classical and contemporary works. She also has an MBA, as well as a PhD in organisational behaviour and has been the co-director of the prestigious arts institution, Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, for nearly 30 years. In 1989 she created the first of her hard-hitting solo theatrical works, Shakti: the Power of Women. Since then Mallika has created numerous stage productions which have raised awareness, highlighted crucial issues and advocated change. One of her recent works is the 2006 Unheard Voices, an intensely physical, musical theatre piece, based on Harsh Mander’s book of the same name. It gives voice to five of the millions of voiceless Indians through a series of monologues. In an energy-packed performance, you meet people who have confronted life on their own terms but have never accepted fate lying down. These are stories of struggle and courage. And of victories.

Daksha also highlighted the fact that Mallika is a media person in every sense of the term: besides being the CEO of Tara Gujarati channel, she was project director for SAT development Television Program; directed and anchored various chat shows, logging a total of an astounding 3,000 hours on television. In addition to her media persona, Mallika Sarabhai is known for her commitment to women’s rights, which was also reflected in her creative work – ‘Sita’s Daughters’, ‘V for Violence’, and other performances. She is also well known for her firm stands on anti-communal issues.

Addressing the gathering, Mallika Sarabhai outlined how powerful and influential the media could be. She used anecdotes from her life as examples to buttress her point.

In 1963, her mother, the renowned dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, while reading Gujarati newspapers to improve her grasp on the language, was distressed to read about young girls in Saurashtra throwing themselves into wells and committing suicide, in order to escape dowry harassment. Using the classical dance form, Bharatnatyam, Mrinalini performed ‘Memory is a ragged fragment to eternity’. Watching this angst-filled performance in Madras was a member of parliament who went on to set up a committee to investigate dowry deaths – the first of its kind. The central government soon followed suit and this, Sarabhai said, was the power of a 40-minute dance drama.

Mallika’s passion for dancing also ensured that she “lived with Draupadi for five years,” when in 1984 she joined Peter Brooke’s Mahabharata. She found women all over the world responding to her interpretation of ‘Shakti’ through the character of Draupadi. As a dancer and an activist, Mallika said that in her family, confronted with social injustice, you fought it – that was simply the done thing. Sarabhai was constantly using her performances as instruments of social change. Through her play ‘Sita’s Daughters’ she was so convincing, that she received letters from 40 doctors that they would henceforth not conduct sex determination tests.

Taking her vision to another level, as the CEO of the television channel Tara Gujarati, she ran a programme (Kaun kitla paani mein) on how candidates who were contesting elections for the local elections in Ahmedabad would solve the water problem. Mallika said that the questions put to the candidates were: what they thought were the problems, how were they going to finance their solutions and why should people vote for them. For the first time in 10 years, said Mallika, the BJP lost its seats in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. “And they blamed me,” said a beaming Mallika. She stressed that instructive programming need not be dull. In fact, it could spur social change – for instance, the number of Right to Information applications increased by 300% – causing some discomfort to Modi’s government. Despite the success of the channel (Tara Gujarati had the highest TRPs in the three months that it was broadcast), or perhaps because of it, it was shut down.

As the daughter of Vikram Sarabhai, who bought television to India in 1968, Mallika said that television had immense potential and the current programming was nothing short of disastrous. A few years ago, Mallika said that her team had offered to make instructive and entertaining programming content at very nominal price. The logo for the proposed series was a take off on Gandhi’s monkeys – one monkey with binoculars, one with a ear piece and one with a megaphone. Despite a good reception in pilot programs, the series found no takers, rued Mallika.

Citing another example of the power of the media, this time print media, Mallika referred to her incisive piece in The Times of India of March 3, 2002, titled ‘J’accuse’. In no uncertain terms, she labelled the anti-Muslim violence a carnage, and made people sit up.

Referring to Ammu Joseph’s book on women in journalism, Mallika said that women journalists needed to reinvent definitions and not get caught in the difference between “soft” and “hard” news, which is based on very male terminology. And in reinventing the wheel, you discover that the wheel is actually a chakravuyha. “Who decides what is good and what is bad? And why is ‘soft’ bad? Why is a story about weapons a hard story, and why is it ‘good’? Has it made anyone happier,” she asked. What is needed, she said, is an inclusive perspective, since 70 per cent of the world has been marginalised. Media women need to bring humaneness into news. For example, the Sensex story is not only about the crores that Ambani made, but the little family that dared to invest in shares.

Mallika Sarabhai with the panel of speakers.

During the discussion session, in response to a question, Mallika said that if feminism is about equal rights and if 51 percent of the population is female, then women’s journalism is about feminism. Asked if her stature as a public personality gave her a louder voice to be able to use the media effectively, Mallika conceded that the impact of her TOI piece, for example, would have been less had a lesser widely recognised person written it. She agreed that being famous accorded her a greater say, but she said that she was disappointed that other famous persons did not use their names to take a stand on socially relevant issues. “I use, in fact, flaunt my name, to highlight issues that need to be raised,” Mallika said.

In response to a comment that decision-makers in radio and television feel that we should be “entertainers” and not “crusaders”, Mallika agreed that the television programming today left much to be desired, and there was an erroneous idea that “relevant” needs to be “boring”. This was because there was a paucity of vision at the decision-making levels of the present television journalism industry. Mallika said that currently journalism was all about bowing to management pressures. She said that journalists needed to be more creative in getting their stories across and Internet was a useful medium.

In reply to a question on how she perceived the latest Gujarat Assembly elections, Mallika said that the media had over hyped Narendra Modi’s victory. Out of the 110 seats that the BJP won, in 40 seats, the margin of victory was by a measly 300 to 1000 votes. This narrowing down of the margin, as compared with the mandate in 2002 was a silver lining, which the media had failed to report.

She said that Modi’s chief constituency was the Gujarati male. “For far too long, Gujarati men have suffered a sense of inadequacy as the women have always been on the forefront of all activities. More and more Gujarati women had resorted to marrying men from other states,” she said. While Gujarat’s men had been content in manning ‘papa’s businesses’, they had been called ‘cowards’ in the past for not taking up ‘macho’ options like joining the defence. These men had taken to Modi’s macho persona and constituted a sizable chunk of his support base. She said that the Gujarat could not be judged solely on the basis of the economy. Even as the ‘development’ card had been touted by the BJP, other indicators like malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality, crimes against women and minorities were as abysmal as in the BIMARU states.

After a sumptuous high tea, NWMI members got an opportunity to have an informal interaction with Mallika Sarabhai on a wide range of issues, from women in journalism and recognising young talent, to the rise of fundamentalism in Gujarat.

Stimulated by the discussions, members headed for a lavish dinner hosted by the Mayor of Pune.

Day two, February 9, morning: Media, security forces and democracy

The first session of the day, Media, Security forces and Democracy was held at the National Defence Academy (NDA) campus, in Khadakvasla near Pune. The session followed a brief visit to the campus, the highlight of which was a visit to the massive dining hall with a seating capacity of one thousand. Framed menus dating back to the 1950s adorned the walls, providing a glimpse into the culinary delights enjoyed by Jawarharlal Nehru, King Mahendra of Nepal, and the presidents of various countries. A visit to the war museum was sobering – flags of Pakistan from the 1971 war, various armaments and artefacts were grim reminders of the wars the country has fought.

After a scrumptious “high tea”, participants filed into the huge auditorium. The session was chaired by NWMI member Kalpana Sharma. The panellists were Lt Gen (Retd) Rustam Nanavati, an expert on counter insurgency, Col Anil Athale, former head and joint director – War Study, and NWMI member Teresa Rehman, Guwahati-based Principal Correspondent of the newsmagazine Tehelka, who has reported on conflict situations in the North East.

Deputy Commandant Major General B S Grewal presented the welcome address. Beginning with how powerful the role of the media could be by its portrayal of the armed forces, he cited the international examples of CNN during Gulf War I, and the concept of embedded journalism during the more recent and ongoing war in Iraq and the Indian example of the “binding force” of the media during the Kargil war. Grewal outlined a theme which the others from the armed forces repeated in their presentations: that the armed forces and the media were on the same side.

The moderator, Kalpana Sharma, in her opening remarks said that media faces several important challenges when covering militancy or insurgency and when you have the State or the Army on one side and non-State actors such as militants/insurgents on the other. What should the media do in such a situation? Can it afford to apply the scepticism that is the hallmark of good journalism when investigating any arena of conflict involving two or more parties? Or does it necessarily have to take sides?

The army and state agencies involved in such situations also have to ask themselves how they should deal with the media, how they respond to civilians who are aggrieved and whether there is a way to strike a balance between what are perceived as “security” needs and human rights.
These issues need discussion as more theatres of conflict open up in India. Apart from the on-going problems in Kashmir and India’s Northeastern region, there is the growing arena of internal conflict as represented by the so-called “red corridor” extending from Jharkhand to Maharashtra where the Maoists have established a strong base. In the past, and probably in the future too, the Army is often called out to deal with communal riots as it is seen as non-partisan in situations where the local law enforcing authority is not viewed as entirely impartial. Additionally, there are increasing instances of “terrorist” attacks, the instigators of which are sometimes known and quite often unknown, although the State always has a ready list of suspects.

As a norm, media tend to represent the point of view of the State but often fail to report the other side. This is sometimes due to inaccessibility of the viewpoint of that other side. But more often than not, it is because mainstream media automatically imbues the State’s version with greater credibility than the other side. The question we must ask is whether this is the right way to handle these issues?

Another question that arises is the media’s role in investigating the human rights dimension in any clash within the context of State and non-State actors. When the media exposes atrocities by State agents, they are told that the stories are concocted and that they have been influenced by the insurgents/militants. If, on the other hand, the media only represents the official viewpoint, it is in danger of alienating the general public that is witness to the violations that are inevitable in situations of unequal power and thereby reducing its credibility in their eyes. So here again, there is need for some debate and discussion on the stance the media needs to take. There are probably no hard and fast rules in this regard. But the absence of debate, and the propensity of mainstream media to stick to the known – and therefore the official – version of all such events necessarily means that some part of the story is not being told. For the state agencies, including the army, there are also several important questions that need to be addressed. Civilians and the media often question the conduct of State agencies. Should people in the Army accept such questioning and recognise that it is legitimate within the democratic framework or do they feel that civilians do not understand security compulsions? Similarly, do they accept that their actions should be open to scrutiny or do they feel that different criteria ought to apply to them? And how do they view human rights, the rights of individuals and often the most vulnerable, in situations of conflict? Do they accept that if the media or civilian groups expose excesses by State agencies, these ought to be impartially investigated and dealt with, or do they view all such interventions as motivated?

Lt General (Retd) Rustam Nanavati, after serving in Sri Lanka, and various hot spots in India, retired as General Officer Commanding in Chief, Northern Command, in Jammu and Kashmir (2001-03). He is a recipient of the Param Vishist Seva, Uttam Yudh Seva, and Ati Vishist Seva Medals for distinguished service in war and peace. Lt Gen Nanavati began his presentation by saying that while conflict was inherent in a democracy, the moot point was the manifestation of this conflict. It can either be done via peaceful protests or by violent means, which Nanavati said, was unjustified and unconstitutional because the use of arms is a threat to law and order and sometimes to the security of the state. When faced with subversion, terror, insurgency or a civil war, the state is obliged to use all legitimate means to counter it, Nanavati said. The resolution of internal conflict is the function and the responsibility of the government, the army can only step in to do the government’s job when the police have failed, he said.

On counter insurgency, he said that the media is the primary means to reach the people and the government should use it to mould public opinion. Likewise, a “terrorist” act by itself is also nothing without the publicity. He said that the media “wittingly or unwittingly” falls into this trap by reporting on the act of terrorism, publicizing it and mobilising support for the insurgents. Nanavati said that while the media was able to hold the government accountable, the insurgents were beyond its control.

According to Nanavati, the way ahead for the army was to set up its own Public Information Booths, independent of the Department of Public Relations (DPR). Instead of psychological propaganda which he said was irrelevant to counter insurgency, the army should focus on improving the perception of the public, which he said could be achieved only by telling the truth. Nanavati said that it is important for the army to tell the truth -, but rather controversially added that while it need not be the whole truth, whatever was told must be the truth.

Nanavati agreed that the army tended to use words like “manage, handle, deal” which imply control over the media and inadvertently impacted the feeling of credibility of the media. The army, he said, lacks the quick response the media expects. It is overtly sensitive about image and failed to understand the “media’s need for instant information and its need to repackage the news”.

On the other hand, the media, he said, lacks the knowledge, resorts to sensationalism, can become prey to disinformation, and needs to ensure a sense of proportion and balanced reporting. The media should also understand the need of the army for confidentiality. One example he quoted was the need to first inform the next-of-kin in case of death on duty, before the family learns of the death on television.

In conclusion, Nanavati said that while the media should understand and emphasise the cause, it should not justify violence. He said that the soldiers were only doing their duty within the bounds of the law, however harsh or draconian the law.

Moderator Kalpana Sharma intervened to say that by and large the media toed the state line, with a few exceptions.

Teresa Rehman provided a ‘non-state’ perspective from the Northeast of India, which she likened to an attic – a forgotten part of the house. She highlighted the fact that there are several phases of the military and militancy that needed to be understood. While the economic boom had made it easier for the insurgents to send press releases via email and work on laptops and engage with the media, the media in the Northeast, she said was caught between the state and the insurgents. Despite numerous assurances, both the state and the insurgents interfered in the workings of the media. Several editors have been kidnapped or killed. Media in the Northeast has to retain objectivity and can intensify the democratic process by being transparent, she said.

The next speaker was Col Anil Athale, a doctorate from Poona University, he was on deputation with the Ministry of Defence where he researched and wrote the official history of the 1962 Sino Indian war. He is founder co-ordinator of Pune based think tank INPAD (Initiative for Peace and Disarmament) and involved in Track II diplomacy with Pakistan and China. Col Athale cited incidents in an attempt to prove that the media never followed up on any case after the initial reportage. He recollected the infamous rape case of Nalbari, Assam, in 1979. At the height of the Assam students’ agitation, army personnel were accused of raping 17 women. Athale said that the internal enquiry of the army had revealed that six soldiers and one officer had halted at the said place, for 20 minutes at 10.30 am in the morning. Athale said that these were men of the “Dogra” regiment and were known for being “soft and gentlemanly”, besides which, it was a physical impossibility for the seven men to rape 17 women in 20 minutes. Athale said that the media did not correctly report the incident by not following up on the trial. He also cited an incident in Kashmir when he witnessed the army showing restraint and not firing upon a crowd of ‘burqa clad women” despite grave provocation. This incident went unreported, showing Athale felt, a distinct bias.

Athale argued that in many cases the officers in the armed forces were not transparent with information with the media to further their own career. The same motive applied to journalists as they were more interested in bylines, he said. In this competitive frenzy, he said that even law and order situations are branded as “insurgency”.

The session was opened to the floor and in the lively discussion that ensued, it came to light that the NDA, which is the training, ground for the armed forces had no gender sensitivity programme. With obvious lack of understanding about gender sensitivity itself, the Deputy Commandant justified the absence of such training saying that the NDA did not train women cadets! With such gendered blinkers at higher levels, little wonder then, that officers in the Indian Army have little sensitivity to women’s issues.

In response to a question from T Anjulika, journalist from Manipur, Nanavati said that Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was necessary if the army was to continue with its operations in Manipur. He said that the Act by itself was all right, it was the violation of the Act which needs to be severely punished. Differing with him, Anjulika said that more than five decades of the AFSPA has not been able to address insurgency in the state, and added that Manipur must be declared as a conflict zone which will then allow human rights officials to enter and monitor the situation.

During discussion, Nanavati went back to his earlier argument that the media needed to guard itself by not falling prey to the false propaganda of the insurgents. During his stint in the Northeast, Nanavati said that he had toyed with the idea of starting a newspaper to counter the false propaganda of the insurgents, but the idea had fallen through.

Sonal Kellogg commented on earlier assertions about the media and the army being “on the same side” and said that while the brief of the army was to fight for the government, the role of the media was different. She said that the media and the army need not be, and cannot be on the same side of the fence.

Meena Menon refuted Col Athale’s suggestion that the armed forces were the innocent party and always at the receiving end of media’s reportage. She said that instances like those were the exception rather than the rule. Menon said that it was the responsibility of the media to report on what happened to other Indians because of army excesses, and reiterated the notion that media could work in the larger public interest despite not being on the same side of the fence as the army.

Members were concerned over the implications of Nanavati’s suggestion that the armed forces need not tell the entire truth even while telling the truth. Also, while the army had presented a case against insurgent violence, it had not fairly portrayed state violence. The end of the session was followed by lunch.

Afternoon sessions : Beyond vice and victimhood : Towards a balanced media representation of sex workers

The post-lunch session, Beyond Vice and Victimhood: Towards a Balanced Media Representation of Sex Workerswas moderated by Laxmi Murthy.

Introducing the session, Laxmi Murthy said that the session had been conceived because issues around sexuality have always been subject to extremes of representation in the media – ranging from silence to sensationalism. Sex work and prostitution are multifaceted questions made more complex because of lack of information, differing moral values and the social stigma attached. While commercial sex has existed in some form or the other in most societies, sex workers have lived on the margins of society through most of human history. Stereotypes, derogatory names (in all languages), stigma and general indifference to their humanity prevail worldwide. The media has often added to the reinforcing of prejudices and perpetuating myths, and increased visibility has arguably contributed to a backlash.

In the face of extreme violation of fundamental rights of sex workers and denial of access to health, education and other welfare services, sex workers have evolved several survival strategies that are often invisible in the “victim hood” story. It is worth noting that “victim hood” results not necessarily from being in sex work (as usually depicted in the media) but that often, the portrayal is itself the victimisation. Undeniably, sex work often involves poor health, financial exploitation and physical and sexual abuse; however, these abuses are not intrinsic to sex work, but rather the result of the stigmatization and marginalization of sex workers in Indian society.

Additionally, the blurring of differences between prostitution and trafficking does not take into account the crucial difference between consent and coercion. Traditional notions of “prostitution is violence against women” mirror this position that is being challenged by organised movements of sex workers. Likewise, the conflation of sex work (commercial exchange of sexual services) with human trafficking (coercion into forced labour of all kinds) harms both the sex workers caught in the confusion and the fight against trafficking. Often, short-sighted policies aimed at tackling trafficking (such as “raid and rescue” operations led by the police) contribute to the increased harassment and vulnerability of an already marginalised section.

Laws such as the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, or ITPA, related to sex work also operate within this binary framework of vice and victim hood, ignoring the complex lived reality of sex workers. The HIV/AIDS pandemic and regarding sex workers as “carriers of the virus”, and moves to enforce mandatory testing, has further narrowed the debate and impacted on the rights of sex workers.

The session sought to explore the underlying reasons for an unbalanced portrayal of sex workers in the media; to identify misrepresentation; to unpack the myths and prejudices surrounding sex work and prostitution; understand the proposed amendments to the ITPA; provide a realistic understanding of the circumstances in which women engage in sex work; and promote alternate terminology and perspectives with which to understand and report on the lives and issues of sex workers.

The session began with the presentation of a media monitoring exercise initiated by CASAM (Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation), a project of Sangram working with sex workers in Maharashtra. The study was carried out by Vidya Kulkarni (independent writer-photographer and women’s rights activist) and Dipti Raut (journalist in print and broadcast media). The aim of the study was to examine media coverage of sex work to seek clarity on the amount, extent, quality, and depth of this coverage, in order to help in better reporting of sex workers’ issues. The study analysed 1107 clippings from English newspapers and magazines complied by Aalochana, a Pune-based women’s research and documentation centre. The clippings covered the period from 1990 to 2003 – a period that marks a shift in discourse on these issues, as a result of the efforts of groups working with sex workers and the growing sex workers’ movement in India

Presenting the key findings of the study, Dipti Raut and Vidya Kulkarni pointed out that the police and government together form the main source of the news (44%), followed by NGOs (21%) and Sex workers (17%). Since the police department remains a major and influential (29%) source the stories reflect police angle and action taken by them. Such coverage in a way reinforces stereotypes of the sex worker as a wrongdoer, engaged in illegal activities, said Dipti. Editorials constitute only 1%, showing scanty attention given to the issue by newspapers. The small percentage of readers’ letters (1%) shows that the newspaper coverage has not succeeded in motivating readers to respond their views on this issue.

The news coverage of trafficking and police raids is among the highest (29%). However, very few attempts are made to follow up these operations and find out the status of rescued girls. Thus, despite getting larger media space, the issue of rescue operations has not been followed up adequately. The study found that journalists have been lacking in healthy scepticism of the version of the police. The least covered issue was the health issues of sex workers (0.38%), while the most-covered issue was trafficking and the sex trade (25.59%).

The main observations of the study were: sex workers cannot be viewed as a homogenised group; there should be a distinction made between sex workers and the sex industry; there should be an attempt to go beyond the victimization story; there should be a recognition of the involvement of sex workers in tackling problems in the industry; the media should explore more thoroughly legal interventions and methods like raids and rescue, and their drawbacks, and encourage debate about issues such as legalization of prostitution.

Meena Seshu, Director of Sangram, who has worked with sex workers in Sangli for more than a decade and a half, took up some of the issues that surfaced in the survey. Seshu said that ever since sex work had been institutionalised with trafficking, it had become difficult to extricate it from the HIV/ AIDS paradigm. Public health campaigns believe that sex workers are carriers of HIV, thus stigmatising them further.

She said that sex work couldn’t be equated with trafficking. While a lot of trafficking did occur, a section of women had continued this field “because this was the best possible option available to them.”

Instead of using the clichés like the “oldest profession” or “flesh trade” or “selling of the body”, Seshu suggested that sex work be looked as a business transaction of “buying and selling of sex”. She said that violence was not in the act of sex, but in everything else surrounding this transaction, which contributed to stigmatisation and marginalisation of sex workers

The existing outlook towards sex work was the reason she said that rescue and raid operations of the police never worked. The women in the profession have more at stake, which is why they prefer to join forces with the brothel owners once the raid is over. Faced with harassment from the pimp, the customer, the lover, the police or from the street, it is the brothel owner who protects the sex worker. The society on the other hand is keen on “rehabilitating” the sex worker economically, when she does not need it. Why would a women who earns in lakhs each month agree to be rehabilitated with sewing machines, carpets or candle work, which is what the existing rehabilitation projects have to offer.

On the other hand, the sex worker continues to struggle to open a bank account, or get her child admitted in school, or own a car, owing to the stigmatisation of the business of sex work.

During the heated discussion that followed, some participants said that the “choice” terminology was erroneous because women, and many child sex workers are forced into prostitution and have no choice. The example of bar dancers in Mumbai who were forced into prostitution was also cited. Seshu clarified that children should be kept away from sex work, it was nothing short of child abuse. The problem, she reiterated, was when adult women’s issues were conflated with the issues of children who were forced into prostitution. Seshu said that there was a need to decriminalise sex work. Until sex work was made safer for those who had chosen to continue with the profession, it would be difficult for those who had been forced into this profession to get out, Seshu argued.

Questions flagged included: would any of us enter sex work ourselves, or encourage our daughters to become sex workers, if not then what “choice” we are talking about. Seshu said that one is never asked if she wanted to become construction worker or a rag picker. But a distinction is made with the profession of sex work, and this was more to do with moral judgements. She reiterated that the “choice” paradigm must be seen in a larger context of lack of choices in general for women.

Sonal intervened to point that in Ahmedabad many women offer sexual services out of their homes as their men pimp for them and earn a lifestyle that they would not be able to afford otherwise. However brothels are different from home based services. Here the client is invisible but the women get picked up during raids.

Seshu said that if the government intends to formulate a law then it should sit down with sex workers during the decision-making process. She said that while the rights of the sex workers are being discussed, the right to sex work would be the next fight.

Supriya Sule, Member of Parliament, who attended the session, intervened and said that it was important for law makers to be well-briefed and understand the issues in a more nuanced manner.

Panel discussion on media ethics and sting operations

The discussion was chaired by Ammu Joseph. The panellists included Amrita Shah, contributing editor of The Indian Express, Kunda P N, documentary film maker and media expert, and Prathiba Chandran, Chief of Bureau of Sahara Samay.

Introducing the session, Ammu Joseph said that recent debates in India about ethics in media practice have focused primarily on “sting operations,” especially on television. “Sting journalism” has come to be almost synonymous with investigative journalism even though the sting is only one among the many available tools of the latter, to be used only if unavoidable in the course of efforts to uncover information on important matters of public interest. Fake stings and stings based on questionable means of ensnarement have further muddied the waters.

However, discussions on media ethics need to go beyond stings to take in a wider range of issues critical to the credibility and public interest mandate of the media. Among these are issues relating to accuracy, fairness, integrity, transparency, responsibility, etc. The panel discussion on media ethics will take into account the public’s right to information, on the one hand, and the individual’s right to privacy, to a fair trial, etc. The blurring of traditional lines within media houses, separating corporate/business interests from editorial/professional practice is another issue likely to generate debate. Among other related concerns are: protection of sources, use of unverified information from official/political sources, use of material obtained by third parties through illegal means, conflicts of interest, nationalism/jingoism, communal/caste/gender/ideological biases, gifts & junkets (and other inducements), and so on.

The discussion will also go into the need for and mode of self-regulation by the industry vs controls by the state and bodies such as the Press Council, said Ammu.

Amrita Shah said that the culture of consumerism had become all-pervasive in the media, which was causing journalism to lose its edge. Earlier, a certain degree of restraint was placed on advertisers. Those barriers are slowly disappearing because of ‘advertorials’ and subtle product placements. This culture was now acceptable as the norm and was prevalent everywhere, she said.

The format of 24X7 news had brought with it a new set of problems, as there were now more segments to be filled on television. More youngsters are in the industry now. With no space or time to slowly build facts and investigate a story, as things are needed to be produced immediately, the reliance on ‘sting operations’ had increased, she said.

Amrita said that while the state of affairs was depressing, journalists really did not have a voice vis a vis the editors and the management. She said that the citizens, who are on the receiving end of the news content, should be brought into this paradigm. Consumer courts can sue channels or newspapers if they feel that the quality of news that they have been subjected to is below par.

Kunda P said that sting operations were powerful tool, but should be used in a responsible manner. She also recalled in the “pre-sting operation” days, when journalists used to do investigative journalism to uncover facts. An example was the issue of sex determination tests in the late 1980s, when journalists posed as decoys and exposed clinics where such tests were being conducted.

Prathiba Chandran was vociferously in favour of sting operations. She said that sting operations per se, were not problematic. It was the violation of professional norms during stings that bring it a bad name, as in the case of the teacher Uma Khurana in Delhi. She said that a code of ethics should be outlined and at stake was the credibility of the journalist, the editor and the organisation. It should be done in a guarded, controlled manner and tampering should not be tolerated.

Members agreed that sting operation was not a new concept. Even before the advent of television journalism, the press had been using tape recorders etc to buttress their stories. Among the issues that were touched upon were the need to protect those interviewed in their television admissions for certain stories, along the lines of a witness protection systems. Members said that more power should be vested in the editor as already the credibility of the media is plummeting. Undue reliance on Internet-based research and the lack of verifying information so obtained, was also discussed.

Amrita said that while the news content was being brought out in the name of the “market”, the management made it sound like this consisted entirely of readers without including the advertisers.

Kunda said that in certain cases like the Khairlanji rape and murder case, caste biases also crept into the media coverage. Meena pointed out that in the beginning the case was covered by the media as a ‘sex crime’ without caste involved.

Certain issues like junkets, inducements, trial by media, media being used by political parties were not discussed for lack of time.

Day three, February 10, morning

The morning session on health with Dr Sharangapani was followed by a networking session and frank exchange of ideas by NWMI members from across the country.

Group Photo

The session that followed focussed on the innovative learning methods by the Centre for Learning Resources. Setting the context, John Kurrien cited studies on English language proficiency (or, rather, the lack thereof) among school students, as well as the keenness to study English as a window to the world. Through an interesting audio visual, Zakiya Kurrien presented their work of using radio to teach English in government schools in urban and rural Maharashtra. CLR uses an innovative pedagogy known as Interactive Radio Instruction, which is being used for the first time in India. This allows listeners to not only hear English being spoken, but gives them the opportunity, during the radio lesson itself, to speak in English. The radio lessons contain a variety of child-friendly formats – drama, songs, language games, etc. in both Hindi and English – which hold the interest of children. Along with the focus on teaching spoken English, radio lessons promote appropriate attitudes related to democracy, secularism, gender and health.

The next session focussed on the work of the MASUM (Mahila Sarwangeen Utkarsha Mandal), an NGO that is developing effective means of communication in rural areas through traditional media such as leaflets and skits/street plays. MASUM works in the rural areas of Pune and Ahmednagar districts of Maharashtra State with the aim of creating awareness about exploitation faced by the underprivileged groups in the community and help them organise themselves with a feminist perspective. Anupama Pathak and Archana More from MASUM, with village-level activists Manisha Kunjir, Kalpana Yadav and Anandi Yadav, presented their work of using innovative forms of communication: flipbooks for health awareness and skits based on real life experiences.

Vasundhara, a community radio group from Baramati, made a presentation about how they produce the radio programs for the local farmers.

The afternoon and evening of the third day saw members depart, to get back to busy routines. The sense of camaraderie, and stimulating discussion charged up the batteries enough to face the challenges of the profession with renewed vigour.

The NWMI national meeting in Pune was made possible due to the work of Pune NWMI and Pune Partrakar Sangh, particularly the NWMI Pune co-ordinators Sandhya Taksale and Manaswini Prabhune, along with the Organising Committee comprised of Medha Punde, Nayana Nirgun, Arundhati Ranade, Sushama Neharkar, Chaitrali Chandorkar, Jayashree Bokil,Daksha Warty, Prachi Bari, Kaumudi Kashikar-Gurjar and Ranjani Raghavan.