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Women Journos focus on 'paid news'

Mar 22, 2010

In the annual meet of Network for Women in Media, India, 120 women journalists participated. Focusing on the issue of ‘paid news’, experts dealt with issues such as constructive intervention from media, situation of women journalists in print and visual media, gender sensitivity and outlook of region media etc.

Kozhikode, India: Kerala recently played host to 120 women journalists. They came from within the state and across the country to attend the annual Network for Women in Media, India (NWMI) conference at Kozhikode, held between February 5 and 7. The number of participants are significant because, until the early 2000s, Kerala, the most “progressive state in India,” had very few women journalists.

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The Kozhikode convention was the eighth such event, and its main theme was 'Media and Democracy.’ This time, women journalists focused on the issue of “paid news,” a grim phenomenon that was seen as violating the very principles of journalism.

Mrinal Pande, the only woman editor-in-chief of an Indian newspaper, spoke about the impact of this trend on the Hindi media and how she, as a woman editor, had handled it. T.N. Ninan also addressed the audience. Besides being one of the most respected editors in the country, Ninan currently chairs the committee set up by the Editors' Guild to deal with the issue of “paid news.”

Activist Aruna Roy inaugurated the conference and spoke about the need for a more constructive intervention from the media on several key issues confronting the country, including attacks on tribals and minorities. Roy and her group were instrumental in getting the RTI Act passed and she has been a key person in conceptualising the NREGA and campaigning for it.

The very fact that so many women came together for such a conference reflected the growing presence of women journalists in the mainstream space. They have now been assigned bigger responsibilities and some of them are even part of the top management. “Even in Kerala, a small daily like 'Tejas' in Kozhikode has more women sub-editors than men,” observed Remya T.R, a sub-editor at ‘Mathrubhumi.’

Added Reji Nair, another sub-editor at 'Mathrubhumi', which is, incidentally, the second largest newspaper in Malayalam in Kerala, “Several news channels were launched in Kerala and women journalists were recruited in large numbers. The print media, too, has also seen a rise in the number of women journalists.”

Newspapers in Kerala, which were reluctant to hire women even until quite recently, have changed their ‘no women’ stance, according to M. Suchitra, a journalist with over 20 years of experience in Kerala media.

“Two decades ago there were just a few women in the field. Now most journalism students are girls. Earlier journalism was considered risky for women. That attitude of Kerala society is now slowly changing. Over the years, the situation has changed positively for women journalists, in both the print and visual media,” said Suchitra.

However, old concerns do remain. An emphatic presence of women in media does not always translate into an emphatic voice. Pune-based Sherna Gandhy, a journalist with over 20 years experience and the first woman editor of the 'Sunday Observer', noted that many younger journalists are not conscious of the fact that there could be a woman's angle to issues that they should be highlighting.

Said Sherna Gandhy, “I don't think women have been able to mainstream their voice yet but I'm not sure there is a 'voice' women have today, as they did then. Women's issues were a distinct area of journalism and we were very conscious of that and of pushing it whenever we could. Lately I think this has disappeared-maybe because women today don't see the need for it? Maybe they think they have been sufficiently mainstreamed and don't need a separate voice.”

Gandhy gave the example of magazines today. “Do magazines call themselves women's magazines, today? Verve, Bazaar, Cosmo, Savvy, look more like fashion or lifestyle magazines. Women's issues are covered in the mainstream press, but only as an incident, statistic or event-a rape, an honour killing. Would any magazine carry, today, an entire issue on rape-analysis, cases, attitudes, the manner in which it is depicted in films, etc-as Eve's Weekly once did?” she asked.

Suchitra agreed that there is still a lack of gender sensitivity to stories. “During the editorial meetings, I had to fight for many gender issues to be included. The perception about what women readers wanted, then and now, has not changed much either-it's all about fashion, beauty and recipes,” she says.

“Earlier, there were the writings of women litterateurs like Lalithambika Antharjanan, a noted writer of fiction and social reformer, in Kerala. The voice is now manifested in the writings of brave women such as Dr. Khadeeja Mumtaz, a physician and novelist, which question male diktat,” said Maleeha Raghaviah, who recently retired as a senior reporter from The Hindu in Kozhikode.

In the early days of journalism in India, women had yet to make a significant entry. The 1970s and 1980s saw a handful of women journalists lend a consistent and powerful voice to journalism, specifically on women's issues of concern. The ongoing feminist movement in India further energised women's journalism.

Many of these women journalists were actively involved in the movement and took up several issues like dowry deaths, domestic violence, rape, inheritance, and female foeticide for the first time in their writings. There was also a conscious effort to highlight women's issues and effect change. Then things changed, and these issues remained unarticulated.

So is there some change in the air today? “Over the last few years, there has been some improvement but we still have a long way to go,” said Jayashree Bokil, a reporter with 'Sakaal', the largest selling daily in Maharashtra.

“If women are not given the opportunity to report on a wide variety of issues, how can a woman's perspective emerge?"

"Most often, women are appointed as sub-editors; as reporters; they manage supplements on culture, cinema and the like. In Maharashtra, after working as a journalist for 10 years, I have realised that the regional media is still very traditional in its outlook. Women are underestimated and rarely given the opportunity to express their viewpoint,” she said.

The NWMI has been able to give women journalists the opportunity to talk and learn about mainstream issues in the media. The statement that emerged out of the Kozhikode noted that issues “such as the Kerala media's coverage of terrorism as well as the practice and politics of veiling and unveiling, especially within minority communities were discussed” by women journalists.

In 2009, the NWMI conference was held in Imphal and as many as 60 journalists attended the event. It was perhaps for the first time that such an event had been organised in Manipur and it provided journalists from the rest of the country an opportunity to write on various issues involving the Northeast. As a result, women's voices and groups rarely covered by national media-as, for instance, the Meira Paibis who have strongly supported Irom Sharmila in her campaign against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958-were brought to the forefront.

The NWMI meetings are held in different cities every year. After the first national meeting in Delhi in 2002, meetings have so far been held in Mumbai (2004), Hyderabad (2005), Kolkata (2006), Bangalore (2007), Pune (2008) and Imphal (2009). Members say that these annual meetings have gone a long way towards improving the skills and knowledge base of women journalists.

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