Indian media’s #MeToo storm now names junior foreign minister
Former editor MJ Akbar, the junior minister for foreign affairs, has been hit by claims from a senior journalist as accusations of harassment continue to rock the media
India’s MeToo movement seems to have finally gained momentum with the minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, a former prominent newspaper editor, accused of harassment by a senior journalist.
Priya Ramani, who wrote a column on sexual harassment in Vogue, posted her article on Twitter with the comment that she was naming Akbar. She detailed how Akbar, then 43, had invited her to his hotel room for a job interview. She was a 23-year-old reporter at the time. Another anonymous article, posted on the news-site Firstpost, detailed a similar episode but did not name Akbar.
Meanwhile, Prashant Jha, political editor of the Hindustan Times, stepped down pending an inquiry by the internal Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) committee. Jha sent a note to the editor in chief, who sent out a message to staff saying Jha would step down from all managerial posts.
This comes a year after the anti-sexual harassment movement #MeToo swept the world. India had its share as controversy raged over an online list of male academics, who were accused of sexual harassment.
Victims say they have taken to sharing their stories online as current laws and systems for redress are not effective enough. Notably, most of the alleged harassment appears to have been workplace-related incidents.
Avantika Mehta, who joined Hindustan Times in 2014 as a legal correspondent, has accused her then-colleague Jha of making inappropriate advances right after she left the job in 2017. Mehta shared screenshots of her online chat with Jha, in which he allegedly kept saying he was attracted to her despite being married, despite her saying she was ‘uncomfortable’ about his remarks.
“I was as nice as I could be because my little experience in Delhi has taught me [that] pissing off a man who’s considered a darling journalist will have shit repercussions for my career,” Mehta wrote on Twitter. “Make no mistake the only thing that I felt threatened about was my career and not physically. And yes, it is harassment,” she said.
Jha did not respond to an email asking for comments. Dinesh Mittal, general counsel and company secretary for Hindustan Times Media, told The Wire that they will start an investigation and if Mehta had reported these interactions during her time at the organization, they would have taken action.
Debate in India about sexual harassment, especially at workplaces, only really started to change following the Justice Verma Committee Report, which led to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013. The Committee was constituted in the aftermath of a gang rape in Delhi in 2012.
Now, media organizations will be tested in how they handle these latest accusations, some of which relate to events from years ago.
Every accusation seems to have a domino effect leading to other victims coming out. Journalist Rama Dwivedi has accused Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah, who runs the online site The Kashmir Walla, of molesting her and her friend at a gathering. Shah was her former partner.
I was shocked and asked him to back-off. But Shah is not a person who takes a no for an answer, he believes consent is permanent. He tried to force himself upon me while muttering things like “Do I not turn you on anymore?”. At this moment he was pushed back.
— Rama Dwivedi (@ramad08) October 6, 2018
Another journalist revealed she received complaints from two former employees of The Kashmir Walla against Shah. In a response to Asia Times, Shah sent a statement saying the allegations against him were part of a “vilification campaign.” “Even as I did not accept any wrongdoing, I did apologize unconditionally,” Shah wrote.
When Mayank Jain, a journalist at the Business Standard, was accused of being a “sexual predator”, more accusations started pouring in against him. Jain was called out on Twitter in August 2017 by a woman for allegedly violating her consent. Jain replied to the woman that he was sorry and was taking “therapy” to “reform” himself.
Jain has not responded to Asia Times’ email about this. His current employer, the Business Standard, has conducted an investigation into the allegations against him and said they would announce their decision soon. Meanwhile, his former employer the Scroll has disclosed that they received an informal complaint from a female employee on “an instance of sexually inappropriate online behavior by Mayank Jain”. But because the complaint was not formally lodged the organization only served a warning to Jain.
Violation of consent
Journalist Sandhya Menon accused KR Sreenivas, who is now resident editor at the Times of India in Hyderabad, of harassment when he was dropping her home one night in 2008. They were both working at Bangalore Mirror. She wrote: “He lays his hand on my thigh and goes, “my wife and I have grown apart. She doesn’t understand me’.”
She filed a complaint but felt she had not received proper redress. The woman who headed the committee for sexual harassment told her: “It’s unlikely he’d do something like that.” But after Menon’s tweet, several women, both employees and interns, have claimed they were harassed by KR Sreenivas.
KR Sreenivas told Firstpost: “Times of India has said the charge would be investigated by its committee against sexual harassment.” He added: “I will submit myself to the investigation.”
Menon also accused Gautam Adhikari, who was editor-in-chief of the Daily News and Analysis paper in Mumbai at the time of the incident. She said on Twitter that Adhikati was dropping her home when he forcibly kissed her. Following this, Sonora Jha, Professor of Journalism at Seattle University, also accused Adhikari of sexually harassing her in a hotel room.
Adhikari told Indian Express he did not recollect the incident or the accuser and he was not contemplating any legal action.
Journalists at Times of India submitted an internal petition to the editors asking for a “swift investigation” into the allegations that amount to sexual harassment at workplace.
A slew of accusations
After her accusations against the editors, Menon started receiving many personal messages from women, especially journalists, about alleged harassment. Among the people named were Indian novelist Kiran Nagarkar and musician Kailash Kher.
Journalist Anurag Verma was accused by a woman on Twitter for asking her to send nude photos. Later he admitted on Twitter he was “problematic” in sharing “crass” photos over Snapchat.
Meanwhile, a Mumbai-based female comic and writer accused fellow comic and former journalist Utsav Chakraborty of sending her nude photographs. Mumbai police took note of the allegation and asked the primary accuser to get in touch.
Both Verma and Chakraborty worked at HuffPost India, which said: “HuffPost India is unaware of any allegations leveled against Verma and Chakraborty while they worked here. We are checking if there were any similar allegations while they were here.”
Meghnad Bose, a journalist at online publication the Quint, was also accused by at least three women of sexual harassment. He put out an “unconditional apology” on Twitter for his conduct but refused to accept one anonymous allegation.
Poulomi, a journalist who accused Bose, said: “We know the conventional narrative: An apology, a few months of less social media time, lying low, and then it’s back to normal.” She said she came out with her story to lend strength to the first anonymous allegation that surfaced against Bose.
Apart from men in the news media, big names from other industries have also come out in harassment allegations, including renowned photographer Pablo Bartholomew, filmmaker Vikas Bahl, and author Chetan Bhagat.
While women brave stigma and patriarchy to share their narratives of trauma and harassment, supporters hope that this will finally start to change the attitude towards sexual misconduct in the male-dominated Indian media.
(Disclosure: The author was trained at Asia College of Journalism. One of the accused is from her institution).