By Maya Palit
Women journalists already encounter an array of obstacles on a regular basis, from everyday misogyny to rape threats, online abuse, sexual harassment, and sparse funding for safety and transport. And now, there appears to be a bizarre new paranoia about them doing the rounds in Kerala. The reason is due to a pathetic stunt by a TV channel, where they tried to get a politician embroiled in a scandal. Sadly, the consequence is that of reducing credibility for several women journalists in the state.
On March 26, 2017, Mangalam TV released an audio clipping of the former Transport Minister AK Saseendran having a telephone conversation in which he can be heard asking a woman for ““sexual favours”. The woman’s voice was edited out of the clip (no explanation was given for why this was done), but the channel kept up the pretense for days that the woman was a homemaker who had contacted Saseendran, and then come to them with a complaint about his antics.
This created a public uproar, which was followed rapidly by Saseendran’s resignation, a police investigation, a judicial probe, and criticism against the TV channel for attempting a ‘honey trap’ to embroil Saseendran into a scandal. Meanwhile, Al Neema Ashraf, one of the reporters at Mangalam TV, handed in her resignation on March 29. She was involved in the Saseendran operation in some capacity, but despite her being vocal about the fact that the channel had hired a receptionist to speak to the minister, people have assumed Ashraf was the woman behind it, and she’s had to deal with a lot of the backlash since.
It’s no surprise, then, that she outed Mangalam TV to the media, claiming that she and other reporters were instructed to use “any means” to trap the minister because it would make for a “big breaking story”, and wrote a Facebook post detailing the channel’s ‘unbearable circumstances, both as a woman and a journalist’. (The Ladies Finger attempted to contact Ashraf, but was unable to reach her despite multiple attempts.)
On March 30, the chief executive of the channel, A Ajithkumar, finally buckled under pressure and admitted that the whole thing had been a deliberate setup. He confessed that they’d selected a woman journalist, along with an eight-member team, to go through with what he referred to as a “sting operation”, but what most people would probably just call an imbecile screw-up.
In a deeply underwhelming apology, Ajithkumar expressed his “regret” about how the channel’s actions might impact women journalists, while promising to “introspect” and take measures to correct the situation. But sadly, his introspection isn’t going to help anyone here. Because he and eight employees at Mangalam have had a First Information Report (FIR) filed against them for attempted defamation. And things have already become tougher for women reporters in Kerala in the aftermath of Mangalam’s big joke.
Kochi-based journalist Suvi Vishwanathan revealed on a Facebook post on March 29 that she’d tried to call TK Hamza, a senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader for an interview, only to hear the strange response, “What is it for? Do you want to make me AK Saseendran?” He then felt the need to declare that he would only speak to a male journalist.
Women journalists in Kerala protested the backlash against them on Thursday with a demonstration outside the Mangalam TV office, and the News Minute reported the head of Network of Women in the Media, India, an association of women media professionals, saying that Mangalam’s apology wasn’t enough to counter the attacks against women journalists: “This is an attack on all the women journalists and Mangalam TV cannot get away by furnishing an apology. Any degree of persuasion or move to influence our protest will not pull us down. Mangalam TV has insulted women journalists. We are being forced to confront questions from various quarters, questioning our credibility.”
Perhaps people have been swept away by pop culture’s (think Bond and groan) inane emphasis on women’s capacity to ‘honey trap’ with ease, but it should be apparent that although Mangalam TV’s motivations and attempt to stir up trouble out of thin air were vacuous and ridiculous, that shouldn’t in any way justify the assumption that women journalists are out to malign men with sleazy games.
There’s no telling how long it will take to undo the negative impression of women journalists that Mangalam TV has created with its shortsightedness, but let’s hope that the public in Kerala realises that the channel and its ingenuous directors are the ones to blame. And that vocal protests and expressions of solidarity with women journalists in Kerala go some way in countering the idea that women have nothing better to do with their time than to entice politicians into ‘honey traps’.