Bollywood actor Nana Patekar, Union Minister and Journalist MJ Akbar, veteran TV actor Alok Nath, former Times of India editor Gautam Adhikari, Congress IT Media Cell member Chirag Pattnaik, actor director Rajat Kapoor, film producer Vikas Bahl, comedian Utsav Chakraborty, ToI Hyderabad resident editor KR Sreenivasan, singer Kailash Kher, Hindustan Times political editor Prashant Jha have all been accused of sexual harassment during a fortnight that brought the #MeToo movement to India.
In April 2018, actress Sri Reddy went topless to protest against sexual harassment in the Telugu film industry. She was slut shamed and banned by the local producers association and was forced to move to Tamil Nadu for work. Six months later, actress Tanushree Dutta in the last week of September 2018 disclosed that she was forced to quit Bollywood due to persistent sexual harassment by actor Nana Patekar. Despite her complaints to CINTAA and the police, Patekar continued to harass her and was supported by the film director Vivek Agnihotri and choreographer Ganesh Acharya during the shooting of the film ‘Horn OK Pleassss’ in 2008. This forced the actress to quit Bollywood, and she left for the US in 2010. Returning on a vacation ten years later, Dutta decided to reiterate her charges. The allegations opened the flood gates of #MeToo complaints and over a dozen famous personalities in the media, film and politics were named in the following weeks. This is just the beginning.
Has Indian media been insensitive to women’s complaints?
This brings us to two questions. Firstly, has the Indian media been conspicuously silent and hesitant in the support of the #MeToo movement, unlike the Western press? Ten years ago Dutta did not receive media support and in 2018 actor Sri Reddy got negative press while protesting. No media house appointed any journalist to investigate the truth. Both women protested alone, were isolated, while the predators had support from the big boys fraternity. This is the reason why actors like Aditya Pancholi, directors like Madhur Bhandarkar and singers like Ankit Tiwari have all survived allegations. This is why so many young actresses like Pratyusha Bannerjee and Jiah Khan were perhaps driven to suicide. The big boys club in the male-dominated industries, the tardiness of Indian courts and non-cooperative hostile media trials is something women fear.
I have myself witnessed the apathy to women’s issues as the editor of women’s magazines and websites. The young scion of one of the top media houses of India, who take pride in fearless journalism, once chided me for publishing a ‘women’s rant’ and being too sympathetic to women’s causes. The trend is troubling. It can be seen that the coverage of the charges has been less than enthusiastic in the print media. The prevention of sexual harassment POSH guidelines in most media houses exist merely on paper. The problem is that HR departments are extremely non-professional and insensitive in media organizations. They make interns work for 12 hours plus, fire staff at will through threat and coercion and try settle sexual harassment cases with just a sorry and a handshake. If you want justice, you are being difficult and are asked to leave.
The second question is more important. Top editors of two of the largest circulated newspapers with supposedly robust POSH procedures have been named by more than one woman journalist in these organizations. In the case of MJ Akbar, multiple journalists have alleged sexual harassment. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Media organizations where women constitute at least a third of the work force but just a twentieth of editors have many more sordid stories to report. Why are the Indian media houses unsafe for women? The Indian media houses must be at the forefront of reporting and investigating these stories. If they don’t change their own attitude, they will lose people’s faith and operate similar to any ordinary PR agency.
Social media is pushing cultural and legal change – traditional media is failing
Two recent changes of law in India last month show how social media is pushing change. Years ago the media organizations were roped in to espouse a worthy public cause. The conventional media due to its intransigent attitude has been losing its leadership role today. Brands are using social media instead to espouse causes.
The new social media tool is the public service announcement or PSA campaign. These are funded by brands or NGOs. Promotion of popular causes in the social media by brands and ad agencies are influencing and changing lawmaking globally. The popularity in this case is social media popularity and not necessarily popularity of the masses. The first law that was changed was the non-criminalization of gay sex and the second was the non-criminalization of adultery in India.
Both changes in law were hailed by social media as path breaking considering that India is a conservative society where sex is a taboo and ‘traditional family values’ are said to be the social norm. Social media advocates had reasons to celebrate. They had worked overtime with celebrities and activists to vigorously push these causes like so many others that are influencing and changing the way we think.
How Ogilvy pushed gay marriage in France
When France had not legalized same-sex marriage last summer, one of the world’s top ad agencies, Ogilvy, decided to take up the issue. Working with Tous Unis Pour l’Egalité (‘All United for Equality’), Ogilvy roped in a mayor in Belgium to officiate gay marriages in France through video calls via Google Hangout. Since marriages held in any EU country are legal in all member countries, it broke the back of the French government resistance to legalizing gay marriages. ‘These first social same-sex weddings provided a new venue for thousands of French gay couples to be heard and to speak out about their rights,’ claimed Google. Within months France legalized gay marriage. Google said in a blog post: ‘We helped the debate progress in France by giving a voice to the many supporters of marriage equality.’
The EU had already passed a non-binding resolution encouraging member states to accept same-sex marriage in 2015. However, several EU member nations continued to resist. On 5 June 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled in the case of a Romanian couple that any gay couple married in any EU nation would have the same residency rights across Europe, irrespective of the laws of the country. The social media movement and the EU judgment had global impact.
In India the legal battle to decriminalize gay sex or repeal section 377, a 157-year-old law punishing gay sex with a maximum sentence up to 10 years in prison, has been ongoing since 2001. A month after the EU ruling, the Supreme Court of India decided to expedite hearings from July 2018 onward. In September 2018, it finally overturned its own 2013 judgment decriminalizing same-sex marriages. The five-judge bench headed by CJI Deepak Mishra unanimously decided that, “Criminalizing carnal intercourse is irrational, arbitrary and manifestly unconstitutional.”
Similarly, the fight against criminalization of adultery is spearheaded by social media in the country. Other social media campaigns that are changing social behavior and related laws across the world are increasingly affecting India.
#MeToo from Hollywood to Bollywood
The #MeToo campaign that less than two years ago rocked Hollywood has now shaken Bollywood as well as Indian print media. The PSA video “firmly demonstrates that sexual harassment affects women of all colours, body types, cultures.” Dozens of women survivors of industry abuse are filmed by Women in Motion Pictures making public service announcements across the world. Indian actresses were silent.
But not all is lost. Actress Tanushree Dutta, who quit Bollywood for another profession and migrated to the US, is belatedly receiving support from other actresses including Parineeti and Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor and even Hrithik Roshan after speaking out. Such delayed accusations have been supported by the #IKeptSilent Movement. This is giving legitimacy to accusations by women who have kept quiet despite been subjected to sexual harassment even decades back.
This #IKeptSilent PSA was spearheaded by celebrities like Padma Lakshmi, who have admitted to keeping silent for years after being subjected to rape and sexual abuse as a child. The #IKeptSilent PSA nearly upset Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court as Dr Christine Blasey Ford charged him with sexual assault claiming that she was under the influence of drinks and drugs when the incident occurred. Kavanaugh was confirmed eventually by the Senate on the premise that Ford’s charges were lacking in sufficient detail and proof.
Other social media campaigns of significance
Among other PSA’s was the Plan International stunt announcing the marriage of a 12-year old Theo with a 37 year old Gier. The stunt was a public service announcement to raise awareness against child marriage. According to Plan International, nearly 39,000 child marriages take place each day across the globe. This is a program again, which has got more social media backing, brand and ad agency support than coverage by conventional media.
In October last year, Monica Lewinsky debuted in a PSA #DefyTheName with BBDO New York and Dini von Mueffling Communications. The video, ‘In Real Life,’ which went viral and went on to be nominated for an Emmy, featured actors reciting cyber bullying posts to show the power of hurtful online words. Several celebrities shared their trolling stories. This year Lewinsky will change her twitter handle title to – Monica ‘Chunky Slut Unmarryable That Woman’ Lewinsky – during the month of October to give more power to the #DefyTheName campaign.