#MeToo and the media: Mistakes we know we are making

In light of the rape allegations against the CEO of Dawn, we asked journalists how we can better report on ourselves and each other.


THE FIRST TWEETSsurfaced on October 20, 2019: filmmaker Jami accused a certain “media tycoon” of sexual assault. Newspapers and editors balked: #MeToo had been simmering in Pakistan for a while but never had it bubbled over within scalding distance. Still, it was possible to tiptoe around it for two months — then Jami named a name: Hameed Haroon, CEO Dawn

The ensuing events — the debate on social media in certain quarters, its lack thereof in others, Dawn’s coverage of the accusation, and Haroon’s statement — have culminated in a peculiar and largely lamentable moment for the media. Indicating just how low the industry-wide bar is, Dawn’s initial news report — which centred the alleged perpetrator over the survivor and included a vaguely-worded promise of an inquiry — was lauded. Any other newsroom, several commentators claimed, would have killed the story. Haroon’s statement denied the accusation but alleged that Jami was acting at the behest of powerful state interests looking to destroy Dawn’s credibility — which the filmmaker has addressed directly and denied.  

Assault is a litigious subject and in Pakistan, there are defamation suits aplenty. Jami, for instance, is currently fighting two such cases. Still, for the leery, there are sufficient guidelines available to ensure fairness and accuracy in reporting, as well as sensitivity; for instance, sexual assault reporting ought to include multiple voices, including the accuser, the accused, a legal expert and trauma clinician and ought not cause the survivor any further harm. There are thornier issues to consider, however, as evidenced by this moment. Given how small the media industry is, and how interconnected — and given its current moment of crisis, for unrelated reasons — how can we, as self-professed speakers of truth to power, report on ourselves and keep each other and our own organisations accountable? We asked editors, reporters, and other media practitioners, hoping, in the process, to stumble towards some answers.  

FOR THE MOMENT,though, forget answers — collectively, we seem unsure of the right questions. Here are some, applicable beyond our industry: what should an employer do upon becoming aware of a sexual misconduct allegation against an employee outside the workplace, or before they were contracted by the organisation? Does it matter whether the allegation was anonymous? Who is qualified to hold such an investigation? And in the meantime, how should that workplace treat the employee against whom the allegation was made? 

“Isn’t it telling that we look to the employer to take action against misconduct, even if the workplace wasn’t where it took place?”

These questions are important because the revelatory outpouring over the past two years — which we still call the #MeToo ‘moment’ — has indicated not just the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct, in all its gradations, but also the years it can take for women and men to tell their stories. The ‘moment’ has also highlighted the centrality of the workplace in our lives: isn’t it telling that we look to the employer to take action against misconduct, even if the workplace wasn’t where it took place? In this day and age, the employer holds real punitive power over us. We are all cogs in the capitalist machine.        

And so, conversely, given the power that our workplace wields over us, what should employees do when their boss is accused of sexual misconduct or if their organisation is under scrutiny? With specific regard to our industry, is it realistic to expect the media to report on themselves, for journalists to hold their own superiors accountable? What norms can be cultivated, or guidelines established that could make this possible? This question, too, can be relevant beyond our industry: essentially, how can the distribution of power be made more equitable within the workplace and how can this redistribution be guaranteed? 

WITH THESE QUESTIONS — and others — Soch reached out to more than three dozen media practitioners, at varying levels of authority and experience within the industry. Only a quarter agreed to respond, the overwhelming majority on conditions of anonymity. (We also reached within, circulating these questions amongst our own staffers.) 

“‘If newspapers can’t be open and honest about their own institutions, then why should readers trust them to be open and honest about anything else?’ asked one journalist.”

This dismal response rate seems like an indictment: as journalists, we make it our duty to burrow into other lives, other stories, so why do we shrink when the repertorial lens is trained on us? This reluctance is not limited to Pakistani media, either: in its analysis of sexual assault coverage in the US between May 2017 and August 2018, the Women’s Media Center found that the media — compared with other sectors — had the fewest number of stories pertaining to sexual misconduct in its own newsrooms.

“If newspapers can’t be open and honest about their own institutions, then why should readers trust them to be open and honest about anything else?” asked one journalist. But are there rules which could ensure journalistic independence, even when tested by a case such as Jami’s allegation against Haroon? Many respondents noted that guidelines do exist; it is often a question of following them “especially when push comes to shove.” Jahanzeb Hussain, a former staffer at Dawn (Editor Prism) quoted the paper’s publicly available guidelines: 

Management staffers within the corporate entity may not address edito­rial issues and thus may not influence the content of the news in any manner whatsoever. Contentious issues if any are to be sorted out in a consultative process between the editor of Dawn and the chief executive officer/publisher who stands at the apex of management – and this is after the publication of any news story – not prior to publication.” 

“This is the much-vaunted separation between the management and the editorial at Dawn,” he said. “Yet, it was Dawn’s own management that sidelined the principles that its CEO professes to uphold. When the initial story that Images did based on Jami’s original tweets ran a few months ago, the management sidelined the editorial to have that story taken down. There was no consultation and the staff, especially the junior ones, was thrown under the bus as they had to face online questioning and ridicule for something they didn’t do.” 

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect reporters to report on their own newspaper because they’re going to get fired and maybe even made unemployable for other firms because of the power of the small group of media owners,” admitted one reporter, who has been in the industry for three years. Zehra Nawab, an editorial assistant at the erstwhile Herald, noted that the presence of journalists on social media — and the cultivation of personal brands loosely linked to their profession — complicated things. “A reporter’s voice is no longer limited to their column; their social media followers expect commentary, responses on Twitter and Facebook. Silence on topics, that they would otherwise be very vocal on, speaks volumes. In moments like these the personal politics of a journalist is replaced with that of the organisation they represent.”  

“‘I should add that it goes beyond sexual offence,’ Hussain emphasised. Media organisations are notoriously — and increasingly — poor employers, especially in Pakistan.”

From an empathetic standpoint, this is understandable: as one reporter noted, “not everyone has the privilege of being unemployed.” (Here, one cannot help but hope for the revival of unions in Pakistan, infused with feminist principles, not only protecting employees from unfair dismissal but also acting as a pressure group on such matters). Another journalist recalled a recent precedent, however, set at music-streaming platform Patari: “You cultivate norms through actions: when the CEO of Patari was removed only in theory [following misconduct allegations] many of the major high-ups in Patari quit … I am not saying everyone at Dawn needs to quit but they should, in their own way, stop putting up with bullshit, demand those accused step down and encourage an impartial investigation.”  

“I should add that it goes beyond sexual offence,” Hussain emphasised. Media organisations are notoriously — and increasingly — poor employers, especially in Pakistan; Hussain, who was employed at dawn.com, elaborated on his experience as a third-party contractual employee. “We don’t have the right to unionise, or medical benefits. If we ever have to go to court, we can’t prove that we work for Dawn since, strictly legally, we don’t. So, while the newspaper publishes articles about labour rights, it doesn’t provide the same to many of its own staff. This is hypocrisy and we can’t even talk about it. You see what I mean when I stress the importance of being able to report on the injustices committed by one’s own organisation? As working journalists, it’s in our interests to do so in many ways; others are not going to speak out for us.”

[Editor’s note: Soch staffers are also contractual employees, but are contracted directly by Soch’s parent company, Green & White (Private) Limited. In practice, Soch operates as a non-profit.]

“The raison d’etre of the wealthy family/corporate-owned for-profit media house will inevitably conflict with its own code of ethics and reporting guidelines, with the former typically prevailing,” one editor wrote in her anonymous response. “… barring the emergence of an independent non-profit media organisation based on progressive principles and run by professional journalists, I do not anticipate significant progress in this regard.”  

MOST JOURNALISTS WEspoke to dismissed the notion that #MeToo was being weaponised against independent-spirited media organisations. “It is understandable that a press fighting for survival each day might develop a siege mentality that leaves it closed off the even good-faith criticism, but I feel it is important to take the long view here,” noted one editor. 

“Was journalism ever a black and white objective exercise in truth that has only now been complicated by #MeToo?”

“To be clear, I believe the media industry has over complicated the issue of reporting on #MeToo to the point of obfuscation,” she continued. “These are complex issues, but besides ensuring that journalists do not perpetuate harmful myths about sexual violence, I think it’s irrational to say these cases cannot be reported on responsibly, accurately and dispassionately… We have a duty to do so, given how endemic sexual violence is, as well to record the seismic effects that #MeToo has triggered in our society.”

Was journalism ever a black and white objective exercise in truth that has only now been complicated by #MeToo? No, argued one senior print and multimedia journalist. “#MeToo is one of the many ways in which traditional ideas of journalism have been challenged, and we are in an era where we have to reimagine what the role of the press is and how journalists can contribute to holding power accountable rather than upholding the status quo.”

The reckoning has certainly underlined the inadequacies of the legal system. “I think one of the central problems around #MeToo is that we keep trying to look for answers in the law. There are very few answers there,” reflected one journalist. It can be tricky to simultaneously report on legal issues while continually highlighting the ways in which the laws come up short but Nawab, for instance, doesn’t think this is a problem: “Our job as journalists is to research; we read, we interview experts, we analyse, we dig deep, we present our findings. We write the truth. If the legal system has shortcomings, we report that. If progress has been made in a case, we report that. Acknowledging and addressing fallibility is as much a part of the job as any other.”

In fact, there are opportunities to push the conversation further. “To date, no one has discussed what it means to live in a society with so many people who have likely inflicted some form of sexual violence on others and whether that means that each of those individual acts requires a carceral or other punitive response. It is logistically impossible… and it doesn’t address systemic issues. There needs to be a broader conversation — not linked to a specific case — about truth and reconciliation, and restorative forms of justice communities can pursue.”

It is not as if the complexities and complications of this ‘moment ’—movement, really — will go away if newspapers and news channels continue to deprive it of the oxygen of publicity; after all, the mainstream media is no longer the only purveyor of said oxygen. It will continue thrumming in other corners, and on social media, which — as one journalist noted — has many benefits but strips stories of context and depth, and is highly susceptible to abuse. It cannot perform the role that journalism must: to hold an issue, a story, an injustice, up to the light and turn it slowly, examining every angle. As journalists, we may not be in a position to make the final determination regarding the guilt or innocence of any individual, or the truth or falsehood of any claim. But, to echo the words of another journalist: “If we cede space in this important conversation instead of tackling it head on and thereby countering false narratives about it, we run the risk of losing credibility — even relevance.” ■

Selected responses from Soch’s #MeToo questionnaire

Is it realistic to expect reporters/newspapers to be able to report on themselves? How can we, as an industry, cultivate norms or establish guidelines that make this possible?

#1. In principle, an ethical and responsible media must hold itself accountable to the same standards as it holds any other entity, in large part by freely and fairly reporting on itself in matters of public interest. The reality, however, is that the Pakistani media as a whole operates along the same structural inequalities and social biases that exist throughout this country, and this reflects in our reporting. A journalist’s ability to perform her duties is invariably compromised if she is systematically disempowered within the institution.  

#2. It is not realistic in the most objective sense; this requires an independent, non-government institution made up of journalists as well as outside experts to encourage those norms.

#3. Ideally, they should be able to. It’s a basic intellectual principle to be able to do that, otherwise your integrity is in question and a media that refuses to look inwards can’t be trusted. It’s evident that when the media doesn’t report a case like Jami’s, it is he, as a victim, who suffers. But it goes beyond that too: it puts Dawn’s own staff in a precarious situation work wise. For example, what if the person who was raped was a Dawn staffer? If there’s so much silence regarding a sexual offence that took place outside of work, imagine how difficult it would have been to talk about it if it had happened inside Dawn’s premises.

#4. I definitely believe that this expectation should be there. It is easy to look at examples of how some have done it in the past. However, I think there is a larger question of whether journalism can be objective, and I think that issues such as these have highlighted the limitations of that. 

Short of a court of law, who is qualified to hold an investigation into incidents that occurred many years ago in a private setting far from the workplace? Is the associated media organisation then obligated to publish the findings of the investigation?

#1. The associated media organisation, after a thorough verification of facts and circumstances, is not under any obligation, but should try to the best of its ability to disseminate the story, while providing space for rebuttal.

#2. I think one of the central problems around #MeToo is that we keep trying to look for answers in the law. There are very few answers there. So much of this is unprecedented. Take Meesha Shafi’s case, for instance; the lawmakers didn’t have the sense to think about freelancers while making a workplace law. They could call on international or local human rights investigators to look into the incident. They could set up a panel of lawyers and detectives well versed with sexual harassment cases. They could think of setting up an independent tribunal with local NGOs that deal with rape/harassment. I mean, the possibilities are endless, as long as there is a will, and societal pressure to conduct this investigation. Of course for this investigation to be legitimate the accused will have to temporarily vacate his position.

How should one report on allegations involving homosexual acts in a country where homosexuality is criminalised and neither victims nor accused can be open about their sexuality in a court of law?

#1. Precisely by not making it about sexuality. A rape of a man by a man is not a ‘homosexual act’; it’s rape and it should be reported only as such.

#2. This is where it does in fact get very tricky, and I think the kind of reporting is platform specific. On niche platforms geared towards a more progressive/liberal audience at least, one can report on such allegations more openly provided great care is taken to (a) not sensationalise (b) not pass explicitly or implicitly homophobic remarks, not imply that sexual orientation is linked to predatory behaviour (c) engage with concerns of the LGBT community and (d) provide context. Survivors and aggressors are not neat embodiments of victims or villains, and it cannot be overstated enough that facts about their life including their sexual orientation are not factors in issues of sexual violence which stem from power not sexual desire.  

#3. I think the central issue is not their sexuality, but the definition of rape in Pakistani law, which is only man to woman. But a lawyer can probably explain this better. All I can say this is a GRAND opportunity for the media to begin writing and campaigning for the dire need in a change in the definition of rape. We are already a few hundred years too late. ■

NOTE: This story has been updated to include more information about the status of Soch employees.

Header illustration by MARIUM ALI.

Correction: Zehra Nawab’s designation at Herald was miswritten in an earlier version of this piece.

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