November Issue 2009

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 15 years ago

A remarkable range of women media professionals from eight countries across South Asia — Afghanistan to Bhutan, Nepal to the Maldives — gathered in Lahore recently for the first regional conference of South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), a relatively new organisation of Pakistani origin.

The two-day event, graciously and efficiently hosted by the Pakistan chapter of SAWM (despite the turbulence caused by multiple violent attacks in several places in the country), marked the emergence of the association as a regional entity that already has a fledgling presence in several other countries in the neighbourhood. The nearly 200 participants presented a colourful mosaic of experiences and perspectives, reflecting the tremendous diversity that marks society, the media — and women in the media — both across the region and within most of the countries.

Among the participating women were veteran editors and venerable columnists, feisty reporters and gutsy investigative journalists, prolific freelance writers and diligent filmmakers, familiar anchors and popular producers — working in or contributing to the press, television, radio and online media in their respective countries and, in some cases, across borders. Their areas of coverage run the gamut from politics and economics, international relations and business, conflicts and disasters to health and education, the environment and culture and, yes, what are often labelled “women’s issues” even though they really involve and should concern the whole of society.

Both formal presentations and informal interactions at the conference re-established the fact that it is impossible, not to mention unwise, to pigeon-hole women in general and media women in particular. The common perception — or is it suspicion? — that if women professionals band together it is to bond over sob stories and lay claim to special treatment or privileges was decisively disproved during the weekend confabulation.

Of course there was discussion of the glass ceiling that may be cracking here and there, but elsewhere is too elevated to even contemplate. And certainly there were complaints about gender-based segregation in assignments and discrimination in remuneration. The paucity of women in decision-making positions in the media, the tendency to relegate women to “soft” beats and the inclination to find ways to pay them less than their male equivalents are obviously persistent facts of professional life in many parts the region (and, indeed, across much of the world).

But there were counter-arguments even on these, possibly predictable, issues which actually raised larger questions about professional realities and hierarchies. For example, how much decision-making power do even top editors today — male or female — wield within media houses in situations where media content is influenced (if not dictated) by many different factors and censorship is a real hazard, whether it is overt or covert, violent or restrained, internal or external, official or unofficial, political or commercial, religious or cultural? And isn’t it time to shed baseless, old notions about “hard” news being somehow more worthy and weighty than “soft” stories that often deal with desperately serious subjects — including gender-based oppression of various kinds — that profoundly affect the lives of countless human beings and are actually more challenging to cover well?

The need for more journalism education and training was repeatedly highlighted by participants from several countries. Even where such opportunities and facilities are relatively plentiful, it is clear that more concerted efforts are required to ensure that women from different, especially disadvantaged, backgrounds are able to enter and succeed in the field. In a region where violent conflict in one form or another appears endemic, despite the apparent end of internal war in some countries, it is not surprising that many journalists flagged the urgent need for specialised training in reporting conflict (including issues of safety and trauma), on relevant legal issues (related, for instance, to covering insurgency), and on the concept and practice of peace journalism.

Such issues were clearly not just abstract concerns for many at the conference. Several had faced harassment and intimidation in their respective countries from both state and non-state actors. At least one had even been abducted, fortunately for a short period. Their experiences establish that women in the media are no longer immune to such dangers — if they ever were. Together with the arrest, assault and even murder of media colleagues, male and female, they point to the perilous state of media freedom in the region as a whole, and certain countries in particular, at this juncture.

If state repression is one side of this coin, the other seems to be the rise of extremist groups, ideologies and activities of various kinds across much of the region (Bhutan, with its Gross National Happiness index, seems a solitary exception!). While this growing trend clearly has adverse implications for society, particularly women, what is not always recognised is that it affects women journalists and their professional options in specific ways.

For example, many families are reluctant to let girls pursue what they believe is a dangerous profession in the present environment.  In places like Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan those who persist often find that they cannot access certain news sources (such as members of the Taliban), who refuse to talk to women journalists.

In the Maldives, a woman journalist who wrote a well-researched but critical article about the veil, faced death threats that forced her to go into hiding for over a month. One of the few women’s magazines published in the island nation was shut down thanks to pressure from extremist groups, including death threats against the female editor. In India, a woman journalist was among several women attacked in cosmopolitan Bangalore earlier this year, ostensibly for not conforming to the image of the “ideal” Indian woman conjured up by an organisation claiming to uphold Hindu values.

In the final analysis, despite the obvious differences between the eight countries of the region and their media scenarios, there are significant similarities in the experiences and concerns of journalists in general, and women journalists in particular, in South Asia. An association like SAWM is therefore well-placed to help strengthen the role of women in the media across the region, improve their professional prospects and, perhaps, even increase their constructive influence on the news agenda.

While basic training in journalistic skills, norms and ethics, and specialised training in conflict-related coverage have already been mooted, another important contribution could be in the area of improving coverage of “women’s issues” (especially those that cut across borders) and helping journalists understand that there is a gender angle to virtually everything covered by the media, including “hard” news about conflicts and disasters, politics and economics. Training in covering issues related to religion is another idea worth exploring in a region where highly conservative versions of various faiths are increasingly seeking to influence social and cultural life, especially in terms of restricting women’s rights and options.

Training workshops at the national as well as regional levels could draw on the expertise of senior journalists and media trainers within the region, who may be in a better position to understand and address local conditions and dilemmas better than individuals from other parts of the world.

Another form of training and mentoring could take place through exchanges of journalists across lines of conflict in the region, whether internal boundaries or external borders. This could help create better understanding of the experiences and perspectives of “the other side” and enable more balanced and responsible media coverage. The regular exchange of editorials and analytical articles between media across the region — especially on issues of common concern, including gender-related matters — could also help build bridges.

The ingredients have been assembled, several recipes are available. Now the cooking has to begin. And, of course, the proof of the korma — or khorma — will be in the eating.