Tehelka controversy: Can powerful editors get away with sexual harassment?

Published: November 21, 2013
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Tarun Tejpal, the patron of Tehelka magazine has 'recused' himself for six months as the editor-in-chief, following a colleague’s charge that he sexually assaulted her. PHOTO: AFP

For more than a decade now, Tehelka magazine has been respected by the media fraternity for its fearless coverage of illegal defence deals, land rights issues, gender equality and communalism.

Then, what happened two weeks ago in an elevator of the Grand Hyatt, Goa that not only shattered the reputation of the magazine, but blacklisted it for a long time to come?

Tarun Tejpal, the patron of Tehelka, is said to have sexually assaulted a female colleague during the annual THiNK fest that Tehelka organises every November. He sent an email yesterday afternoon to the Managing Editor of the magazine, Shoma Chaudhury saying that he has ‘recused’ himself as the editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine for ‘six months’ following a colleague’s charge that he sexually assaulted her.

His email stated,

“The last few days have been most testing and I squarely take the blame for this. A bad lapse of judgment and an awful misreading of the situation have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for.”

Not surprisingly, Tejpal’s half-hearted apology has left the survivor of the sexual assault dissatisfied. Despite her seeking an inquiry into the incident, Tehelka’s failure to institute one has caused even more pain. The incident has highlighted how leading media organisations such as Tehelka, are yet to implement the Supreme Court-mandated Sexual Harassment Committees in their organisations.

A few media organisations that have constituted these committees are Kotak Mahindra’s Business StandardNDTV, the financial newspaper Mint and Network 18’s IBN.

However there is not much evidence to prove that these committees are actually more than an eye-wash and most senior journalists conceded that such incidences are commonplace in their profession.

Tejpal is said to have threatened the girl with her job. According to the girl’s friend, Tejpal threatened to dismiss the journalist if she did not play along. Two of my journalist friends wrote to me this morning saying that they had been through similar experiences in their respective places of work and were wondering if they could take up the matter with the authorities.

The question that arises then is why journalists choose to keep mum in most cases? Well, the journalist in question in the Tehelka case is the daughter of another senior journalist and has several friends in the media. She was a senior correspondent and wielded some influence within the media circuits.

On the other hand, several interns or junior reporters, with neither influence nor the ‘right’ connections, would be compelled to suffer the violence silently.

Another matter of concern here is that Tejpal is the owner-editor of Tehelka. Therefore, he took it upon himself to decide his own punishment. It seems to me that the Sexual Harassment Committees should be allowed special powers to take up cases against owners, especially since several editors own media outlets in India.

The power of an individual journalist’s pen weakens the minute the story is about the shortcomings of his/her own profession. Not many newspapers report scandals involving journalists or media houses unless a police complaint is filed.

However, in this case, senior journalists and common people alike pushed the media on Twitter to treat this like any other story. Hence, several TV channels and newspapers reported the incident last night and this morning.

Tehelka has been organising its annual conference, THiNK, every November for the past three years.  This event represents the leading figures of politics, economics, thought, art and films. Last year I helped in organising the event.

This year, it is troubling to be face-to-face with the dark underbelly of the conference.

Raksha Kumar

Raksha Kumar

The author is a Bangalore based video journalist freelancing for the New York Times and the BBC. She graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University in May 2011 where she majored in TV news. She is a Fulbright Scholar and has worked in various media outlets in India. She tweets @Raksha_Kumar.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.