Four years ago, Sumitha* joined a leading national news channel. At 24, she was as ambitious as any other reporter. Little did she know that the next couple of months would be her last in journalism, thanks to the sexual harassment she would face at the hands of an established journalist, her editor at the time.
Over the past few days, an overwhelming number of stories of alleged sexual offences by renowned and powerful men in the Indian media have emerged. Sumitha, now 28, was also one of the women who wrote about her experience of being sexually harassed by this man, the then editor of a TV channel. The only reason she did not name him, she tells TNM, is because she has no written record of his deeds.
Sumitha stayed in that TV channel for a few months, and the sexual harassment she faced went on for about two months. Her senior, the editor she did not name, would send her ‘I love you’s over text. When she asked him, a man almost two decades senior to her in age, why he was saying these things, and it was making her uncomfortable, he brushed it off saying that this is how he spoke to all his colleagues. “Everyone is a dear friend of mine, why do you have so much discomfort,” he allegedly asked her. So Sumitha let it go.
“He eventually went on to commenting on my body, and saying I looked good or that top suited me etc. I again objected; he chided me to not look at his attraction for me from a moral lens. He would say he was lonely,” she narrates.
Later, the editor started sexting her and asked Sumitha to sext him back. “It started affecting my work, because I would slog all day and my stories still wouldn’t get picked. And then, I started fearing that he would try to make a move on me in person – until this point this sort of communication was restricted to texts. And there would be times where I’d be alone in the office with him to finish my work; so, I was very scared,” she shares. “So, I thought it may be safer for me to keep him at bay by responding over the phone.”
And so, Sumitha was compelled to comply over the phone. “I was not able to understand what else to do. There was also no one to talk to and I was so ashamed,” she says. He also felt entitled to Sumitha being available for his whims on the phone whenever he wanted, she says.
In the two months that this happened, Sumitha also met her now husband, Suresh*. She told the editor also that she was dating someone, but the editor did not stop and bad mouthed her boyfriend too. She eventually told Suresh what was happening, and he told her to get out of the workplace. She agreed.
“I called up our boss, a bureau chief, and told him I wanted to quit and the reason behind it. He encouraged me to make a formal complaint. He said that it would require me and the editor who harassed me to come to Delhi, submit proof, that there would be a committee hearing and that it would be a long process. My fiancé and I didn’t want to go through that then, and so we decided against a formal complaint. The bureau chief was supportive. I submitted my resignation and stopped coming to office from the next day,” Sumitha narrates.
The offending editor called her about her resignation. “He asked how I could do this, what was this nonsense and all… I just told him he was responsible for it, and he is the reason I quit. We did not speak after that,” Sumitha says. She also ended up quitting journalism, because she knew it was not possible to go around in the journalism circles without running into him.
No written record of harassment
Needless to say, those two months left Sumitha very confused and traumatised. She ended up deleting all the messages to this editor, and thankfully, over time, healed and was able to absolve herself of the guilt that wasn’t hers to begin with.
Now however, when she wanted to tell her story, Sumitha does regret not having any written record of what happened. “I wish the conversation with my bureau chief, who encouraged me to make a formal complaint, was on email. Even though I did not file the complaint, that record would have helped me now. But since I have no proof now, I cannot name him. Even if I did, he’s so established, no one would take my word over his,” Sumitha says.
The need to maintain written evidence was reiterated by another woman journalist.
In a Facebook post, she recounted the alleged harassment she faced, as well as how the organisation allegedly flouted the Sexual Harassment Act of 2013. Her first advice to women who have faced sexual harassment at the workplace is to put everything in writing.
She stressed that people would need to show any and all evidence to participate in an ICC investigation or even to substantiate claims should once face any legal or social media-fueled backlash.
*Names changed to protect identity