A media minority – women journalists in Assam

BY Nava Thakuria| IN Media Practice | 26/06/2005
Even as the print media flourishes in Assam, women journalists find themselves on the margins of their profession

               Women`s Feature Service

Nava Thakuria

Guwahati, - Print journalism in Assam has witnessed a boom in recent years and is emerging as an attractive profession for hundreds of educated young people. The state capital, Guwahati is home to 20 dailies, more than half of which are in the Assamese language. It is estimated that the print media has created 8,000 jobs in the last decade and provided part time employment to 20,000 people throughout the state. Guwahati itself is home to over 400 working journalists.

Despite the boom, women journalists remain a minority in this sector. Only 15 per cent of print journalists in Assam are women. Guwahati has only 50 full-time women scribes, of whom just 20 work as reporters, and five young freelance photojournalists. Barely 10 exist in the rest of Assam.

"Newspaper proprietors prefer not to hire women journalists. If appointed, they are assigned mostly to desk jobs. Young girls, hired as reporters, are eventually transferred to the news desk after they get married," says Jullie Barua, a Guwahati-based photojournalist. Proprietors do not want to hire women reporters because they think women cannot cover the conflict-hit areas.

Until 1979, newspapers and magazines in Assam were largely focused on social themes, with the editor and the reporter treating journalism as an instrument of social change. Two men of vision, R G Barua and Deveswar Sharma, took up the challenge to start dailies like The Assam Tribune, Dainik Asom and Dainik Janambhumi. These papers were more professional in their approach and today are leading publications of India¿s northeastern states.

The student agitation of the 1980s changed the face of journalism. Print journalism became more aggressive and focused on investigative reportage. Amidst all the turmoil and social chaos, the local media flourished. Today, almost all the prominent Assamese dailies - Asomiya Pratidin, Amar Asom, Dainik Janambhumi, Dainik Agradoot, Asomiya Khabar, Aji, Dainik Janasadharan and Dainik Batori - have multiple editions to reach more readers in remote areas.

But this growth has not brought any benefits to women journalists. "Women reporters, including photojournalists, are normally deprived of space, scope and dignity in the media. We don`t have a woman editor in any of the dailies," says Barua, who had earlier worked for a Guwahati-based news-photo agency which did not pay her salary for three consecutive months. Now she works as a freelance photojournalist and plans to shift to New Delhi for better prospects. The Assam Tribune, the state`s leading daily, is over 100 years old, but it has never had a woman editor.

S Ahmed, President of The Assam Tribune Employees Union says that, by and large, journalists are not treated well by the management and that women in particular get a raw deal. "More than 60 per cent of newspaper employees in the state, including journalists, are deprived of basic minimum rights like an appointment letter, regular leave, provident fund and medical facilities, besides recommended wages. They are emotionally exploited by the management and have no job security."

The National Commission for Women, in its 2004 report, `Status of Women Journalists in India`, mentions the insecure conditions under which women work in the northeast. According to the report, most women journalists do not get promoted beyond the level of a senior reporter or senior sub-editor. A large number of them get salaries ranging from Rs 1,500-5,000 and some do not get reimbursed for their phone bills and other news gathering expenses.

While the situation is similar in most northeast states, in Assam - where most of the media houses are based, and where most publications are doing very well - the working conditions for women are particularly unhealthy and unsatisfactory. None of the major dailies have any mechanisms for grievance redress or compensation.

Several women journalists in Assam allege that their male colleagues sexually harass them. While in most cases the women prefer to remain silent, Sabita Lahkar, a young journalist decided to speak out against her editor, Homen Borgohain, in 2003.

Lahkar, then a senior sub-editor with Amar Asom, an Assamese daily, wrote in the first information report (FIR) that she was sexually harassed for two years by Borgohain. "As I had two school-going children to take care of, I tried my best to keep silent, although I felt terrible throughout. But one day I was compelled to take a hard decision." Lahkar complained to the management. But instead of taking any action, the management withheld her salary. "I resigned from my job and filed a case," says Lahkar. However, even after two years, the police have not moved on the case at all.

"I have raised my voice against a powerful journalist with the aim of exposing the issue of humiliation of working women in newspaper offices. In my decade-long career in journalism, I have met several women who had silently suffered injustice at the hands of their male colleagues. I demand justice not only for myself, but for the hundreds of suffering women in the media," declares Lahkar.

A positive development has been that women journalists in the state have become more active in addressing issues that affect them. Some of them organised a meeting in the Guwahati Press Club protesting against inaction in the Lahkar case.

Prakash Mahanta, a Guwahati-based journalist and activist, says, "Women journalists must come out bravely for their due space and dignity in the media houses."

 

 

 

 

 

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