Cricket writer Sarah Waris calls out sexual harassment: Predatory behaviour in media is very real, needs fixing
Women in media houses who work late hours, usually under stressful conditions, are especially susceptible to the sort of behaviour a female freelancer recently encountered. It's time for media houses to address such issues proactively.
In a recent #MeToo moment that took media circles by storm, a young female freelancer from Kolkata exposed the alleged sexual harassment she had been subjected to by a senior sportswriter and editor. The latter is widely considered in India as one of the best in the business. After the writer-editor made several alleged attempts to trap her into a sexual relationship, the freelancer — Sarah Waris — called him out through a Facebook post. She did not, however, name her tormentor.
Waris is a cricket writer — an area of sports journalism that, to a large extent, is still male-dominated. Therefore, the high-profile editor perhaps believed that she was a soft target for his overtures.
What surprised me more about the entire episode was that most of the senior media men, who were aware of the writer’s alleged conduct towards female journalists in the past, chose to criticise him only when his supposed sleazy side was exposed. Waris’ action in this context deserves commendation.
Sarah, in a way, is fortunate that she is a freelancer. The writer-editor could have harmed her career if she was a full-time journalist and probably not in a position to expose him. It is possible, from what I know of Indian corporate culture, that she may already have sacrificed her career for the cause, although I sincerely hope she hasn’t.
A woman writing or reporting on the game of cricket was unheard of till the late 1980s. If I recall correctly, Sharda Ugra, who is now a senior editor with ESPN and Cricinfo, and was earlier an associate editor with India Today, was one of the first women cricket writers in the country. She joined Mid-Day as a young cub reporter on the sports desk around 1989 along with Hemal Asher. Prajwal Hegde was at Mid-Day too around the same time but her area of interest was tennis.
In another male-dominated sport like football, Norma Astrid of Times of India, Laxmi Negi of The Indian Express and Arundhati Kursange broke the barrier in and around the new millennium. Many women in recent times have established themselves as cricket/sports writers and reporters. Among them are Mallika Bajaj, Kadambari Murali, Rica Roy, Shivani Naik etc stand out. Media houses are now more open to employing women on the sports desk and therefore, it is necessary that they be provided with a safe atmosphere to work.
Sexual harassment at workplaces, especially in media houses, is a reality. Despite more and more women opting for careers in the media over the last decade or so, ‘gender sensitivity’ is still a sophisticated term that makes power-point presentations in boardrooms look good. Women in media houses who work late hours, usually under stressful conditions, are especially susceptible to the sort of behaviour Waris said she experienced.
In recent times, however, there seems to have been a change in the way female journalists have reacted to sexual harassment. Such cases and incidents are being reported more openly and bravely, thanks to the enactment of the law — Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act of 2013. This law requires every company that has ten or more employees to formulate a ‘Prevention of Sexual Harassment Policy’, to constitute a complaints committee, to sensitise the workforce on the issue and to handle incidents of sexual harassment as per the procedure laid down by the law. Failure to do so can attract stiff fines, besides the cancellation of business licenses.
The law apart, it is time media houses in the country are proactive, along with their employees, in creating sexual harassment-free workplaces. Men and women working in newspapers, magazines, web portals, TV channels etc. need to be treated with equality, dignity and respect. Media houses also need to be sensitive to the needs of their female freelancers, who aren’t full-time employees, and in that sense liable to be sexually exploited by those who outsource work to them.
Sarah has shown the way. The onus is now on media bodies and associations to take up the cause of sexual harassment and other such issues for journalists and freelancers.
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler, he has worked in PR, Sports, HR and Customer Relationship in a PSU during a long corporate career.
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