Thursday, November 12, 2009

Waking Up to Slightly Old Breaking News

Trust Western journalists to come to stories a bit late on the draw. Or is it that there are certain seasons for Pakistan-related stories - the more salacious (sex, drugs, violence) the better? In recent days we've had stories about the operation against the Taliban (obviously), the flesh on offer at Pakistan Fashion Week (correlated with the Taliban onslaught), the insecurity of Pakistani nukes (ditto), the emptiness of Pakistani pop music (viz a viz the Taliban threat) and the growing distance between the establishment and Asif Zardari (how bad a thing that is when the Taliban are breathing down their throats). So, some hack has seen his chance to pitch another story about Pakistan's media.

The Maheen Usmani - Dunya TV sexual harrassment saga actually broke in June and even the debate about it kind of petered out over the last five months. Here is what The National from Abu Dhabi carried.. Expect to see other international media picking up on it.

Pakistan TV news stung by 'casting couch' accusation

Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent

Last Updated: November 11. 2009 11:34PM UAE / November 11. 2009 7:34PM GMT

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan’s growing independent television news industry has been stung by allegations of “casting couch” sleaze, sparking a debate within the media about the extent of sexual harassment of female journalists in the workplace.

The allegations, the first to be made public since the government opened cable channel ownership to the private sector in 2002, were levelled by Maheen Usmani, an Islamabad-based journalist and erstwhile host of the weekly show Meri dharti, meri dunya (My Homeland, My World) for the Dunya Television Network.

In a letter to the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, since posted on its website, Usmani said she quit her job at Dunya on June 16 after management failed to act on her complaint that Yousaf Baig Mirza, the managing director, had used his position to offer her improved terms of employment – if she agreed to have an affair. Ms Usmani, the wife of a Pakistani diplomat, said that when she registered her complaint, her show was taken off the air and she was removed from the channel’s Islamabad bureau.

Statements of support from the journalists union and, subsequently, the International Federation of Journalists, based in Belgium, prompted Mr Mirza, a former managing director of state television, to accuse the union of jumping to conclusions, saying he was the victim of a smear campaign.

“The matter has been blown up, politicised and publicised by distorting and twisting the facts,” wrote Mr Mirza, in a letter also posted on the union’s website.

The management of Dunya has rejected the allegations, saying that an internal inquiry had cleared Mr Mirza of the charges.

Ms Usmani said her decision to make her case public, an unprecedented step, was motivated by a need to expose the frequency with which female journalists were being exposed to casting-couch ultimatums by their managers.

“I am aware that many female journalists choose to remain silent in the face of sexual harassment because they have little choice in the matter,” she wrote.

Television journalists have generally been reluctant to endorse Usmani’s contention that sexual harassment of their female colleagues was commonplace, however.

Habib Akram, the Lahore bureau chief for the Samaa news network, said: “In television news channels, the women are reporters and producers who confidently deal with and confront government functionaries and other men of power. I don’t see how any such assertive professional would allow anybody to harass them and get away with it.”

The consensus among television executives, journalists and anchors interviewed by The National is that the casting couch was a phenomenon largely associated with the glamour side of the business, where female aspirants tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are desperate for fame and fortune.

“In the drama, sitcom and commercials, it’s massive. It’s an unsaid prerequisite,” said a top male television executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak by his employers.

He said the “sex-for-fame culture” had spilt over into television news, where predominantly male managers who “use their deputies to lead the women up the path so that the boss can move in for the kill” preyed upon budding newscasters from poor families.

“But it’s not one-way traffic. There are many ambitious anchors that use the promise of sex to manipulate their managers and climb to the top,” he said.

Leading news channels, keen to ward off the stigma of the casting couch, have evolved strict codes of conduct for their staff.

Geo News, the most watched cable news channel in the country, has a stated policy of “not firing team members, once permanently hired, unless they have been found to be involved in sexual harassment”.

It has also formed a dedicated in-house committee to monitor such incidents, headed by a female manager, Nadia Mazhar.

However, the industry insiders said the knowledge that such two-way sexual manipulation takes place had made it immensely difficult for channel managers investigating complaints of sexual harassment, in which it is often a case of one person’s word against another’s, to find in favour of the female complainant.

“I’ve seen cases where the complainant and accused have both been fired on the grounds that the girl was alleged to have led the man on,” said another male executive, who also asked not be named.

“The fact is that equal opportunities for women do not exist in Pakistan’s electronic media. Even if she’s behind the screen, a woman is judged first on sex appeal and then on talent.”

However, a veteran female business news anchor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said sexual manipulation was “isolated” and that “one-off cases” depended on the working environment of individual networks. “Over the last five years, as dedicated news channels have split off from their hybrid mother channels, the glamour environment at major networks has been replaced with a corporate environment that is no different from that of a bank or telecom company.”


Sla. said...

Excuse me, but why are you insistent on recruiting musicians into marching, lockstep, in your anti-extremist crusade? Surely their right to sing what they bloody please is what gives them any value? And why use these epithets, except as placeholders for real criticism? Is this post simply a rant? In which case, meet Mr. Hamid. Zaid, meet XYZ.

XYZ said...

@Sla: Am assuming this comment was meant for the previous post, so am going to repost there and answer it there...