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India: Safety of women media professionals - Statements by media organisations and commentary following sexual assault allegations against Tehelka editor

21 November 2013

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Atonement is Insufficient: The Rule of Law Must Prevail

“NWMI Demands Institutional Redress of Sexual Harassment and Assault”

Recent developments at the weekly news magazine Tehelka demonstrate that media houses have a long way to go in ensuring safety for women media professionals.

A journalist working with Tehelka revealed that she was sexually assaulted by the editor, Tarun Tejpal, on two occasions on 7 and 8 November 2013. The repeated harassment and assault over two days took place during Tehelka’s “Think” festival in Goa where the journalist was carrying out her professional duties. While Tarun Tejpal is purportedly “atoning” for what he terms “an error of judgement” by stepping down as editor for six months, we believe that this is simply not enough. Institutional mechanisms must be set in place to investigate the complaint of sexual assault, prosecute the perpetrator, and deal with future cases.

Sexual harassment of women journalists at the workplace is not new. The NWMI has issued several statements over the years in response to specific cases but also calling upon all media houses to comply with the law, which has been in existence since the Vishaka Guidelines were issued by the Supreme Court of India in 1997. There has been plenty of time and opportunity for media houses to establish the necessary mechanisms, as required by the law.

More recently, the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which was signed into law on 22 April, is a significant civil remedy that recognises women’s right to a safe work environment free of sexual harassment. The onus is on the employer, who is responsible for ensuring such an environment and is to be held liable in case of any violations. If the complainant wishes to pursue criminal prosecution, the employer is also duty bound to assist her in doing so.

In this case it appears that Tarun Tejpal’s actions go beyond sexual harassment and fall under the definition of sexual assault, according the new Criminal Law Amendment, 2013.

More and more courageous women are speaking out about sexual harassment at the workplace, by judges, politicians, and senior journalists. It is high time that mechanisms were set put in place, as required under the law, to ensure that the rule of law operates and perpetrators are brought to justice. Recent experiences in Sun TV, Doordarshan and All India Radio, to name just a few, revealed that not only private media organisations but even the state/public broadcasters were not compliant with the law.

The NWMI demands that media houses across the country comply with the law by setting up of organisation with relevant knowledge and experience in dealing with such matters. It should be noted that the internal comsexual harassment complaints and redressal committees within the workplace that include at least one member external to the plaint mechanism is to be set in place and its existence made known to all employees irrespective of whether or not a complaint has been made or is anticipated. Compliance with the law is the very least that mediawomen expect of the media which are, after all, supposed to be the watchdogs of society.

While Tarun Tejpal and senior management at Tehelka may prefer to view the matter of sexual assault on a colleague as an “internal” issue to be compensated for with “atonement and penance,” we demand institutional action that will not only ensure justice for the complainant in this particular instance but also lead to real organisational reform that will benefit all employees in the future.

We demand:

  • Setting up of a Complaints Committee by all media houses, including Tehelka, to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace
  • An independent inquiry into the incident of sexual harassment/assault during the “Think” festival and punishment for the guilty in accordance with the law
  • Assistance from the organisation in filing a case under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, should the survivor in this instance wish to initiate criminal proceedings.

We believe the news media, which cover the transgressions of other members/sections of society, have a responsibility to look within, too. At the same time we think it is important for the media to refrain from circulating details that could reveal the survivor’s identity and/or are merely titillating and do not serve any public purpose.


Ammu Joseph, Bangalore

Laxmi Murthy, Bangalore

Kalpana Sharma, Mumbai

Sameera Khan, Mumbai

Rajashri Dasgupta, Kolkata

Neha Dixit, New Delhi

Kavin Malar, Chennai

Kavitha Muralidharan, Chennai

Satyavati Kondaveeti,Hyderabad.

Kiran Shaheen

Full Text of Statement from Editors Guild of India

21 November 2013

The allegations of grave sexual assault made by a journalist of Tehelka against the magazine’s editor Tarun Tejpal, are on the face of it shocking and shameful. Such incidents anywhere are condemnable in the strongest terms but the Guild is particularly saddened that they should engulf a media organisation. It is emphatically the philosophy of the Guild that the media that is in the business of holding public persons accountable should itself be held to the highest standards of conduct and decency. The conduct that has been alleged would constitute grave sexual assault at the very least taking advantage of the authority and power of the perpetrator within the media organisation. It also brings out vulnerability of young women journalists who need to be protected and free to pursue their careers without the fear of being subjected to such assaults.

There out not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality. The full force of the law must be brought into its investigation and prosecution. Due regard must be paid to the sensitivity and privacy of the victim who has already been put to grievous suffering.

Tehelka Scandal: Journos’ Bodies Seek Thorough Probe

Sexualized Workplaces, Predatory Men And The Rage of Women

The case of the gutsy young Tehelka journalist, who has blown the cover on the sexual assault she faced from Tarun Tejpal, underlines the need to respect the victim’s views on how she wants to deal with the situation

by Nivedita Menon, 21 November 2013

Tehelka’s moment of hubris

Tehelka has justified its investigative journalism as being solely in the interest of the victim. There cannot be a different rule when the magazine’s founder is under scrutiny

Salil Tripathi

The late British columnist Bernard Levin once wrote: Those who live in glass houses should undress in the dark. His target was British politicians and celebrities and their moral hypocrisy, but its resonance strikes far wider. Its underlying message—practise what you preach.

Since its inception, Tehelka has been at the forefront of demanding probity in public life. It has championed even unpopular causes, reminding the shining India of the dark side, where a declining, pining, and crying India survived. In covering those stories, its reporters deployed unorthodox methods—some of which stretched the limits of law, some of which were certainly not ethical—to publish facts that it claimed it would not have got otherwise.

Stretching rules and pushing hard has been the magazine’s philosophy; its justification being that it serves a larger purpose. When others have pointed out its editorial or ethical lapses, Tehelka has chosen to ride roughshod over it in a manner that seems almost cavalier—be it over the use of sex workers to tempt public officials and to record evidence for its investigations, or letting unprepared or under-prepared young journalists to go and report in a conflict zone (after which its photojournalist died, succumbing to his illness). True, the magazine has produced sensational scoops, and if there hasn’t been follow-up action, the fault lies with India’s creaky judicial administration. (Disclosure: I have sporadically written for Tehelka since its origin till 2011. I have disagreed with many of its methods, including concealment of identity by reporters, and its editors know that. That doesn’t detract from the importance of its journalism.)

There are serious governance issues at the magazine. When an organization bends rules in one direction, or makes its own rules, and considers itself to be the moral arbiter, that’s the moment to pause: it is the moment of hubris. And what happened at its intellectual gabfest in early November in Goa is Tehelka’s moment of hubris.

Tarun Tejpal’s statement recusing himself from the editorship for six months is eloquent on one hand, with words like “penance”, “lacerate” and “atonement” appearing with ease, as if Tejpal is writing about a character in his novel—remember, he is a writer. But what an odd word to use, “recuse”; for only judges recuse themselves from cases before them because of conflict of interest, and one doesn’t expect Tejpal to judge what happened; “stepping aside” would have been a more appropriate phrase, if the intent was to make it palatable. And yet, on the other hand, the statement is tone-deaf, misreading the mood of a changed nation, unable to comprehend the gravity of the charge, as if ignorant of the consequences of what may have happened. Shoma Chaudhury, who has since taken over as editor, has responded in a way that she would ridicule, if she were reporting the story for Tehelka, and if the target of her inquiry offered such a defence. Calling what happened in Goa “an untoward incident”, as she does, is the type of euphemism that she as an editor would strike out, yelling at the reporter, telling him to call a spade a spade instead. To challenge a journalist who asked her questions about transparency at the magazine, by questioning if the journalist is “an aggrieved party” shows the distance Tehelka has travelled from its ideals.

The Goan government is to be commended for taking the case seriously. An exemplary investigation by Goan police is necessary; if Tejpal is innocent, he should return with his honour intact to the editorship of Tehelka. If the allegations are true, however, he should face the legal consequences.
Much will depend on what the Tehelka reporter decides to do. If she does not cooperate with the official investigation, it would significantly weaken the case. She must not lose nerve; she has done no wrong; she is the victim here, she has nothing to feel embarrassed about. If there’s any stigma, it is in the minds of those who judge her.

The Tehelka reporter is of course right in demanding that Tehelka follow the Vishaka Guidelines. But Vishaka is about the process an organization has to put in place to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. It is an internal grievance mechanism; it cannot replace a court of law, and this case appears to go beyond what Vishaka requires, if one goes by what the letter purportedly written by the reporter reveals. If that letter is an accurate description of what happened in Goa, then it is prima facie a case requiring criminal investigation, and that cannot be avoided because an in-house committee has investigated the matter.

Each time Tehelka has published a piece of serious investigative journalism, it has said it is acting solely in the interest of the victim. There cannot be a different rule when the magazine’s founder is under scrutiny. At Tehelka, Tejpal’s presence looms large; he is the founder, editor, and the spirit behind the brand. There can be serious questions about the magazine’s survival if he were to be away for a long time. Chaudhury is also closely associated with the magazine since its inception; if she has any role on the internal committee (to be headed by independent publisher Urvashi Butalia) too, that will raise serious questions of conflict of interest. How she handled the complaint when first received is a matter to be investigated. Whether she can continue as editor and manage the process with integrity is a question for her to answer.

Shorn of the lurid details already made public, this is a rather simple story of abuse of power by someone in authority picking on someone vulnerable. That the reporter is the daughter of Tejpal’s friend, and that she is a close friend of Tejpal’s own daughter, makes the incident revolting, but in the ultimate analysis, it is not relevant—for no woman should be subjected to what the reporter apparently underwent. This is less about prurience and more about probity; less about the principals involved and more about the principle itself, particularly after the remarkable awakening in India towards crimes against women since the Delhi gang rape case last year. It can no longer be business as usual., 21 November 2013

Why Tehelka’s response is wrong at so many levels

by Siddharth Varadarajan

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are crimes no matter when or where they occur and those responsible must be held accountable under the law.

When these crimes happen at the workplace and involve a senior person abusing his authority to put a female worker under pressure, the company concerned also has an institutional legal responsibility to investigate and take action. When that workplace happens to be a magazine, newspaper or television station and the person charged with assault and harassment happens to be the editor, there is surely an additional burden that must be discharged: that of transparency, fair play and an unflinching commitment to ensuring justice for the victim.

By these yardsticks, the manner in which Tehelka has responded to the sexual assault that a young woman journalist has said the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal subjected her to on two separate occasions is simply astonishing.

The procedure mandated by the Supreme Court in its Vishaka guidelines required the magazine to set up an investigative committee consisting of two female staffers as well as an outside representative. But Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, chose not to go down that route. Instead, a mawkish and utterly self-serving letter written by Tejpal admitting only to a "lapse of judgment" caused by his having "misread" a situation was circulated to employees.

In this letter, the editor-in-chief offered to "recuse" himself from his job and workplace for six months as "atonement"; the offer was promptly cited by Chaudhury as evidence that the problem had been settled internally and that no further action was needed.

The fact that Chaudhury and Tehelka could get it so wrong offers an unsettling insight into a question that has troubled many of us ever since the brutal gang rape of a young paramedical student in Delhi last December.

The question is this: Why hasn’t the national outrage triggered by that incident led to any change in social attitudes towards women? Why has there been no decrease in the incidence of sexual violence?

The disturbing answer is because the friends, relatives and colleagues of men accused of violence against women are often prepared to make excuses for the perpetrators. Or to find some way to minimize the enormity of the crime. Allowing Tejpal to "atone" for what he has been accused of doing is part of the same process or erasure.

If journalists and editors are going to make light of the serious charges that the Tehelka journalist has leveled, why should we be surprised or outraged by the reactionary attitude of politicians and police officers towards women who are molested or assaulted?

Like the judiciary and political class - two sections that have come under the scanner in the past week because of allegations of sexual harassment and stalking - the media is not above the law.

While Tehelka is legally and morally obliged to implement the demand made by its employee for a proper investigation into her allegations, this is a moment for the rest of the Indian media to shine a light inwards. If we believe we have a right and an obligation to speak out against predatory, discriminatory and sexist attitudes elsewhere, surely we owe it to ourselves to ensure that the environment in our own workplaces respects the constitutional right of women colleagues to work free from sexual harassment of any kind.

Most women in the workforce bear a double burden: as employees and as care-givers in their families. Safe and secure housing is a problem for working women, especially those who are single. Commuting to work can also be a harrowing experience for many working women. An office culture that is nurturing will allow women to rise to their full potential despite their additional responsibilities and burdens. On the other hand, an environment that is intimidating - e.g. one where male colleagues indulge in sexist humour or banter or worse, or where male colleagues, who tend to be in a majority, band together against females - will have the opposite effect.

Patriarchal attitudes are so deeply ingrained that they manifest themselves in all sorts of ways. In large organisations, department heads must keep a keen eye on the office culture and environment and make sure women colleagues are completely at ease at all times. Editors may not be able to control the external environment — the city, the state, and the country — but they can and must ensure that the workplace is a space that is truly their own.

Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior journalist and former Editor of The Hindu.

TV debate on NDTV: Is ’Tehelka’ brushing sexual assault under the carpet?

Published On: November 21, 2013 | Duration: 47 min, 20 sec