Gender Bias in Media Has a Chilling Effect on Free Speech and Opinion

Journalism is becoming a ‘marginalised profession’ where female journalists continue to face gender biases within as well as outside their organisation. Though the number of female journalists are increasing, studies show that their representation is much less than men, they are subject to more threats, especially when they cover sensitive issues and struggle to reach top levels.

gender Bias

Journalists face precarious work conditions, lack of fair and assured wages and the rendering of several conventional jobs in the profession redundant by technological developments, contractualisation and arbitrary retrenchments. While women journalists are equally impacted by all of these, they additionally face gender-based discrimination in their professional lives.

There is an undeniable gap in the male and female voices in all types of media, especially print media. According to an analysis of the Delhi editions in four major english newspapers – The Hindu, Hindustan Times, The Times of India and The Telegraph – 32% of the 7,372 articles examined in the study were written by women in 2017, compared to 27% in 2014, a minimal rise in a period of three years.

It is significant to note that there has been an improvement in the proportion of women reporters in the past few years. The same study, as mentioned above, reveals that things have changed for the better. Hindustan Times leads with 49.5% of its front-page articles written by women, followed by The Indian Express with 40.9%. The Times of India rose from 28% in 2014 to 31.2% of articles by female contributors, while The Hindu’s representation decreased to 27% from its former 40%. The Telegraph ranked lowest, with a mere 16% of cover pieces by women.

The metro and the nation sections have also shown a similar progress, led by The Hindu, with 58.5% and bookended by The Telegraph with 15.4%. The reverse was the case for the editorial sections with 50.9% of editorials by women in The Telegraph and only 16.3% in The Hindu. Further, the business section had the most equality, with Hindustan Times leading at 58%, while the sports section was expectedly dominated by men, with The Hindu showing the poorest performance with a score of only 9.1%. This re-emphasizes the stereotype of sports being a ‘men’s thing.’

Though these figures give a ray of hope, but the situation at the top level continues to be disheartening. Studies show that there are many female reporters but very few are in leadership roles. All current editors-in-chief of the above mentioned newspapers are male, consistent with the majority in other head editorial positions.

Malini Parthasarathy, who previously served as editor-in-chief and executive editor of The Hindu, told Newslaundry that she sees a sharp difference between the experiences of women as reporters versus women as editors. “Both male and female reporters generally have discomfort in accepting female authority figures as opposed to senior male authority figures. It is a subconscious reaction on the part of reporters and copy editors and ingrained habit rather than conscious prejudice,” said Parthasarathy. Adding further, she said, “I think the willingness to accept critical feedback from a senior male editor is more than from a female editor. I do think that female authority figures are not yet a fact of life in Indian newsrooms.”

According to a former features reporter at the Hindustan Times, “The divide between female writers of traditionally so-named softer beats, such as arts, culture, health, and environment, and male journalists reporting on politics, crime, and security topics, has long been widely acknowledged – and kind of speaks to the creative patriarchy of India.” A correspondent for Times Of India in Uttar Pradesh said it took her about two years to get hired full-time as a reporter covering crime, since, as she sees it, the newspaper was hesitant to give the job to a woman.

Apart from a poor representation, the other major problem plagued in the media industry is the presence of threats to women reporters. There have been online abuse of female journalists whenever they have expressed dissent, there have been cases of fake news against them, they have been subjected to physical and mental torture among other things. The online vilification of journalist Rana Ayyub, author of the award-winning Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, about the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, is a case in point. After her book release, Ayyub faced threats of rape “if she didn’t stop talking against Hindus and [Narendra] Modi.” Her personal number and address had also been made public making her vulnerable to further abuse.

Women journalists were subject to abuse and discrimination even while covering the Sabarimala temple entry issue. Saritha Balan from the News Minute and Shajila Ali Fathima, a cameraperson working with Kairali TV were attacked by mobs while they were covering the protests of women to enter the Sabarimala temple. A correspondent from New York Times and Pooja of Republic TV, Kavitha from Telugu channel Mojo TV, and several other women journalists were attacked, heckled and threatened. The Sabarimala Karma Samithi wrote to news outlets not to depute female journalists to cover the issue, thus curtailing access of women journalists from covering a significant story.

In Meghalaya Patricia Mukhim and Shobha Chaudhuri, the editor and publisher of The Shillong Times had to face the wrath of the judiciary for editorials on judges giving themselves benefits. Unidentified persons also attacked Mukhim’s home with petrol bombs in April 2018, provoked by her editorials on encounters and mining mafia.

Nobody can forget the brutal murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh who worked as an editor in Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada weekly. Lankesh was known for being a critic of right-wing Hindu extremism and was shot dead just outside her house in 2017.

While such barbaric acts continue to happen, the perpetrators enjoy impunity. This poses a severe threat on the freedom of press, which has been constitutionally recognised as a part of freedom of speech and expression.

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), on the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, issued a statement condemning the widespread misogyny in the media industry. In its statement, NWMI has said, “..Justice for the journalists who are victims of arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence remains elusive. There is a lack of political will to undertake credible investigation to bring the perpetrators to trial and to ensure justice and compensation. The high prevalence of impunity often creates challenges, self-censorship and deters other journalists from speaking truth to power.” It further added, “In times when there is evidence to show that the state is complicit in online and offline harassment of journalists, it is important to push for accountability from those in power, including media owners. In this situation, NWMI affirms its commitment to raise a voice for press freedom and for journalists everywhere who strive to uphold the highest tenets of journalism, without fear or favour.”

In an era of fake news, the concerted, malicious misrepresentation and open intimidation as well as incitement to violence has serious implications for all journalists, especially female journalists. It cannot but have a very real chilling effect on free speech and opinion. It is also in contravention of all laws in India concerning violence against women.

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