By Sukanya Datta and Aditya Vaddepalli
With more women publicizing their experiences of sexual harassment by The Viral Fever founder Arunabh Kumar, questions have been raised regarding the safety mechanisms in Indian media houses.
There is a need to revisit the way in which organisations, especially media houses, implement the Vishakha Guidelines of 1997 since they are the ones creating a buzz about standing up to cases of sexual harassment.
The Vishakha Guideline specifies the need for an Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) in any workplace that has more than 10 employees. This committee investigates the grievances regarding sexual harassment of the employees and submits its reports to the management after investigating the matter. While most media organizations have an existing ICC, there are very few where employees are actually aware of its existence.
For instance, in some media houses, the employees were unaware of the members of the ICC. The New Indian Express (Chennai) claims to have an ICC for the past three years, however, Deputy Resident Editor (DRE), Suresh Sundaram, seemed to be unaware of the head of the committee. Deccan Chronicle Senior Editor B. Vijaylakshmi also claimed the existence of the ICC but told us that “she will get back to us with the contact of someone from the HR department for more information on it”. A junior journalist from Deccan Chronicle said, “I think we should be having a committee like this but I’m not certain who is there on it”.
However, employees of certain media houses like Times of India(Chennai) and The Hindu(Chennai) appeared to be better aware of the ICC. Chief of Bureau of The Hindu, Ramya Kannan, said that the “HR does not deal with ICC. An aggrieved employee needs to directly file a complaint with the ICC.”
Apart from having the ICC, there is also a need for an informed work force and an enabling atmosphere. “As long as men and women are going to work together there are going to be clashes. Therefore, the awareness of the ICC is not enough. We need to explain to them the process and ramifications of a complaint,” said Ramya. In TOI (Chennai), for instance, the employees are invited to orientation programs that talk about the ICC, the proceedings of a complaint and fostering a climate of open-discussion.
Shalini Arun, head of the ICC at The Hindu stressed on the need for awareness programs in the workplace. “There is not enough awareness among the employees and we are figuring out ways of orienting the staff with the Vishakha Guidelines. Special effort needs to be directed at the support staff who are more alienated than the others”, she explained.
According to the Vishakha Guidelines, any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature falls under the purview of sexual harassment. This makes it difficult to judge if things like smutty jokes shared in good humour are also considered sexual harassment. “There needs to be a context for the jokes. Also I need to be comfortable with the person who is sharing the joke with me. I will not entertain smutty jokes from a stranger I am uncomfortable with”, said Ramya Kannan. However, she maintained that no matter what the complaint is, it has to be taken up by the ICC and there can be no pre-judgement.
Thus, the definition of harassment is fast evolving and hence has become increasingly difficult to monitor. “Today, the term harassment is also used by people to frame others when they get shouted at by their seniors or are held responsible for the kind of work they do,” said Vijaylakshmi. Shalini recollected a story where three women had complained about their senior who had apparently passed lewd comments on their clothes. “On the day of the interrogation, two of them had withdrawn their complaint. After the investigation we found that the women tried to wrongly frame the senior as he had scolded them for not meeting their sales targets,” she said. The third woman accepted her mistake and asked not to be fired; she was, however, fired.
At the same time, Shalini also admits that more number of women are reporting the cases of sexual harassment after the setting up of the ICC; the Hindu received 4-5 complaints last year. She also said that usually three out of five cases are actually true. The Deccan Chronicle and the Indian Express, however, denied facing any such “serious” cases in a while.
Nevertheless, it has to be understood that whether or not such cases arise, there needs to be a sensitive, working safety mechanism in place. “The more men and women work together in stressful situations, there is likely to be a struggle for power and of the two is bound to take leverage of this power. Things like the ICC are a deterrent for any such things to happen”, said Ramya.