On 26 March 2017, Mangalam TV, a Malayalam-language news channel, made its debut on Kerala’s airwaves. The channel hit the ground running—at about 11.15 am, it aired an audio clip of a conversation that allegedly included the then transport minister of the state, AK Saseendran, a 71-year-old member of the Nationalist Congress Party. In the clip, a man—Mangalam TV claimed it was Saseendran—can be heard making sexually explicit remarks. “Hug me tightly,” the man can be heard saying, in Malayalam. “Come, remove your clothes, let me see your breasts.” The channel edited out the other side of this exchange—it claimed that Saseendran had made these comments to a housewife who had called him seeking help, and who had later handed a recording of the call to the channel. “A minister who is an insult to the ministry,” the screen read as the edited clip played.
The airing of the audio clip caused outrage in the state. Within four hours of its telecast, Saseendran resigned. The former minister held a press conference that day, during which he declared his innocence and said that he did not have anything to do with the clip. He added that he had stepped down “to uphold the integrity of my party and coalition” and that he had asked Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to conduct an inquiry into the matter. The clip, and consequently Mangalam TV, received widespread attention. Regional and national news organisations covered the controversy, and the clip itself was circulated widely on WhatsApp.
The channel’s decision to air the clip attracted the reproval of many in the journalistic and media community. Several criticised Mangalam TV for airing the clip without a warning regarding its explicit content. Some expressed the concern that the clip could have been culled from a private conversation, and that airing it was a form of moral policing. Others raised questions regarding the identity of the woman in question and why she was yet to come forward. “Is there an allegation or a complaint [against the minister]?” the actor and media personality Parvathi T said during a discussion on a regional news channel. “Otherwise to tap a phone conversation of two mature consenting adults and air it saying it is a case of sexual harassment cannot be accepted.” Several observers also floated the possibility that the conversation had been staged—Parvathi, for instance, cited a news story that broke earlier in 2017, when the Kerala-based news website Daily Indian Herald published tapes that appeared to confirm that Matthew Samuel, a former editor with Tehelka, had worked with his women colleagues to honeytrap and blackmail government officials.
On 29 March, the Kerala government ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident. The state cabinet appointed a commission headed by Justice PS Antony, a retired district-court judge, to investigate the contents of the tape, and gave it three months to submit a report.
The same day, Al Neema Ashraf, who was employed as a sub-editor with Mangalam TV, resigned from her post. Ashraf announced her decision through a Facebook post. “I resigned due to unbearable circumstances, as a woman and as a journalist,” Ashraf wrote. She added that when she joined the channel in May 2016, ahead of its launch, she was appointed to a five-member investigation team. “The profile of the investigative team was something that I did not envisage as part of a journalist’s role,” she wrote. Referring to the airing of the clip, she added: “Due to this incident, an environment has been created in which all women journalists have come under the shadow of suspicion and been humiliated. This is unfortunate.”
In a later conversation, Ashraf told me that during the third meeting of the investigations team, K Jayachandran, a chief reporter and senior employee of the channel “told us that the investigation team’s aim should be to get news at any cost, and we should go to any length for it.” “I couldn’t reconcile with this and I immediately told them that I was not ready to get them news at any cost,” Ashraf said. She added: “I was not called for any meeting after that. Assignments were allotted to others personally, and the editors told me that mine would be assigned later.” (Jayachandran has a dubious history as a journalist. In the early 2000s, he was accused of helping a Congress MLA forge a document that appeared to link the then tourism minister of Kerala to a hawala scam of Rs 33 crore. Jayachandran was also involved in an espionage case that was allegedly connected to an employee from the Indian Space Research Organisation—in 1994, the state police arrested the ISRO scientist S Nambi Naryanan for allegedly passing classified documents to Pakistan. At the time, Jayachandran authored several news reports that seemed to confirm Narayanan’s guilt. However, in the subsequent years, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Supreme Court stated that the allegations against Narayanan were false.)
When no assignment came her way, Ashraf said, she contacted Jayachandran, who told her that investigations could wait as there were other projects that required immediate attention. “They did not want to take it forward in the right way, and that was why I was not included. And I was never contacted again.”
Ashraf’s post regarding her resignation strengthened the criticism against Mangalam TV, especially on social media. Several people, journalists in particular, shared her post, accompanied by the hashtag “WeAreNotMangalam.” The phrase gained prominence on social media as a means of criticising the channel’s ethics and its decision to air the audio clip.
In the days following Ashraf’s resignation, several allegations regarding Mangalam TV’s decision to air the clip came to light. The nature of the incident is murky at best—at this stage, it is difficult to ascertain the circumstances surrounding the airing of the tape. However, the questions that it raised—regarding the ethics of the channel’s actions—led women journalists in Kerala to mobilise and speak up about the gender-based discrimination they face during the course of their work. Anupama Mohan, who works at Metro Vaartha, a Malayalam-language daily, wrote in a Facebook post published on 29 March: “This incident was part of a continuum that treats journalists as meat; a continuation of the prevailing sexism in the industry.”
For a few days after it aired the tape, Mangalam TV defended its decision to do so. On 29 March, Ajith Kumar, the CEO of the channel, repeatedly stated during an interview that the audio clip was not part of a sting operation, nor was it a honeytrap. “If it’s found that this is not Saseendran’s voice, we will shut down Mangalam channel,” he said. Kumar added that the channel was unwilling to reveal the identity of the woman the minister was allegedly speaking to.
On 30 March—soon after the government transferred the investigation of the case to the state’s crime branch—Mangalam TV made a startling volte-face. Kumar took to his channel and announced that the audio clip was the result of a sting operation. He added that the woman at the other end of the call with Saseendran was an employee of Mangalam TV, and that he had earlier claimed otherwise in order to protect her identity.
Reading from a piece of paper in his hand, Kumar said that he and his channel erred in judgment by telecasting the sting operation. He continued: “This decision was taken by an eight-member editorial team consisting of senior journalists. The woman journalist took this assignment by her own will, without any coercion from the editors.” Kumar added that he accepted the criticism leveled against the channel “including on social media from people in the industry.” “I apologise to journalists and organisations like KUWJ”—the Kerala Union of Working Journalists, of which a large number of journalists in the state, including Kumar himself, are members. He added that he would like to apologise “especially to women journalists.” “Going forward, we will ensure that such mistakes will not be repeated,” he said.
Kumar’s admission was met with severe condemnation, both within the channel and beyond. By this time, women journalists had already begun experiencing the discriminatory consequences of the sting operation. On 29 March—the same day on which Ashraf resigned—Suvi Vishwananthan, a reporter at the Malayalam-language channel Indiavision, wrote about an exchange she had with TK Hamsa, a senior leader of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). Vishwanathan wrote that she had called Hamsa seeking an appointment for an interview regarding an upcoming by-election in the Malappuram constituency. She wrote that the leader refused to entertain her request. “Do you want to make me AK Saseendran?” Vishwanathan said he responded. She added that Hamsa said he would give the interview to a male reporter, but not to a woman. Hamsa later told the online publication the News Minute that he had made the comment in jest.
On 31 March and 1 April, the Kerala chapter of the Network of Women Journalists in Media (NWMI)—an informal collective of women journalists—organised protests in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode and Kochi. The NWMI’s members stay in touch through platforms such as WhatsApp, and it has nearly 230 members across Kerala, many of whom helped plan and mobilise journalists for these protests. According to Shahina KK, a senior editor with Open magazine who was at the forefront of these demonstrations, even though most news organisations instructed their staff to not protest, nearly 30 women journalists from various news organisations marched in Kochi, and close to 20 in Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode each. “This incident is highly damaging and questions the credibility of woman journalists,” Shahina said. “It was our responsibility to tell the public that this is not what real journalism is.” The women journalists marched towards the various offices of Mangalam TV, holding placards that read “Proud to be a woman journalist” and “Female reporter is not equal to honey trap.”
Dozens others joined in on social media. Women journalists began posting pictures of themselves holding placards with similar slogans. “Proud of my integrity, proud to be a woman journalist,” many of these placards read. Others added “Apology not accepted”—in response to Kumar’s admission of guilt.
On 31 March, the police registered an FIR against nine people, including Kumar and Jayachandran, under Section 67(A) of the Information and Technology Act, which proscribes publishing sexually-explicit material, as well as Section 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code—criminal conspiracy. On 2 April, the NWMI wrote a petition addressed to Kerala’s chief minister, which 136 women journalists signed. The petition reiterated the journalists’ demand that those at Mangalam TV be held accountable.“The current incident places entire woman journalists of the state under suspicion and humiliates them,” it read. “We believe it is necessary that whoever is responsible for this should be brought before law and punished.”
After Kumar’s admission, news of resignations at the channel began to emerge as well—Ashraf told me that at least five people apart from her left the organisation in protest. Some of these journalists then took to Facebook to mount their criticism. Deepak Malayamma, a reporter, declared in a Facebook post that he was ending his association with Mangalam TV. “I won’t do pimping for journalism,” Malayamma wrote. Ragesh Palazhi, an editor, announced that he was resigning from his position as a deputy news editor at Mangalam TV via a Facebook post on 30 March, shortly after Kumar announced that the audio clip was a part of a sting operation. “When on the first day of Mangalam television camp they asked us to get news by going to any length, mine was the only voice that said this was not journalism,” he wrote. Addressing young journalists who entered the field with the ambition of becoming “the star of tomorrow,” he added, “Without experiencing the tears and bitterness, and the realities, you won’t be able to reach your destination.”
Nithin Ambujan, a reporter at the Thrissur district bureau for the channel, had announced his decision to resign a few hours before the CEO’s address. Ambujan noted in a Facebook post that, owing to the channel’s actions, “freedom, security of women and the borders of ethics became more unclear.” He told me that he was forced to answer for the channel’s decision to telecast the audio clip. “We were the ones who had to get out with the mic to face the public,” he said. “When no explanation was coming from the higher authorities, I decided to quit.”
More disturbing allegations came to light in the days that followed. On 3 April, the Kerala high court heard a plea by the accused for anticipatory bail, but did not grant it. The next day, the police arrested five individuals—including Kumar and Jayachandran.
Between these same days, the journalist to whom Saseendran had allegedly made the remarks, filed a complaint before the director-general of police and the chief judicial magistrate at the Thiruvananthapuram district court. In the complaint, the journalist alleged that Saseendran had sexually harassed her in person and over the phone for several weeks before the clip was aired, and that though she had informed Kumar about this, he had urged her to refrain from filing an official complaint.
The journalist said in her complaint to the magistrate that she first met Saseendran while she was on an assignment for Mangalam TV. She alleged that, in November 2016, when she visited Saseendran’s official residence to conduct an interview regarding Kerala State Road Transport Corporation—a state-owned road-transportation company—he propositioned her. The complaint included troubling details: “As I sat across from him, he looked at me for some time and said, ‘You’re beautiful,’ and ‘How old are you?’” the complainant wrote. She added that Saseendran had asked her if she would like to join him on a trip he was soon to make, to Sri Lanka. She wrote that the minister also asked her to accompany him to his “personal room,” and asked if he could kiss her. She alleged that he then disrobed before her, and exposed himself. “I was scared and perplexed, and didn’t know what to do,” the complainant wrote. She added that she approached Kumar and said that she would like to file a complaint with the women’s commission. The CEO dissuaded her, she said. “He said that my name would appear in news reports, and that this was not a desirable outcome since the channel was due to be launched,” she said. “He said that if the minister continued to harass me, he would take up the matter.”
The complainant alleged that Saseendran continued to call her. At first, she wrote in the complaint, the minister threatened to have her thrown out of the channel. Then, he began calling her at odd hours. The complainant added that she asked him not to call her, but the minister did not relent. “Often the calls were sexually explicit … he was talking in a way that disgusted me,” she said in the complaint. Frustrated by the continued harassment, the complainant said that she decided to speak to Kumar again. (I attempted to contact Saseendran regarding the allegations against him—his phone was unreachable, and my email to the NCP office went unanswered.)
This time, she wrote, Kumar informed Jayachandran—the senior executive Ashraf had referred to during our conversation. Jayachandran “asked me if I had any proof,” the complainant wrote. “I told him I had recordings of the conversations, and handed them over … I requested that I want to go live when the clip is aired, but I was not granted permission.”
I attempted many times to reach the complainant—the person who answered the phone when I called the Mangalam TV office to ask for her first told me that she was away on leave, and then, during a second call, that she was “not around.” The complainant’s cellphone was switched off.
On 25 April, Kumar and Jayachandran were granted bail on the condition that they would not enter the channel’s offices for two months. I sent queries addressed to both of them to Kumar’s email address and to Mangalam TV’s Delhi office. I did not receive a response.
The complainant is not the only woman whose account reflects a grueling ordeal at the hands of those at the channel. Although Ashraf received support on social-media platforms for her stand against the management once she had resigned, some employees unleashed a vilification campaign against her. “At that time, the employees at Mangalam who wanted to announce their support for the channel took the route of abusing me in their posts,” Ashraf told me. “Some women employees of Mangalam messaged me and accused me of doing this to gain fame.” She added that some of the editors employed with Mangalam TV “alleged that I had submitted fake certificates,” and that she had not been given the job due to her merit. Employees of the channel “raised many allegations, trying to insult me and ruin my career,” Ashraf said. (Ambujan, the Thrissur reporter, told me that he did not face vilification after he resigned, as Ashraf did.)
The incident has prompted several women journalists in Kerala to draw attention to sexist attitudes within the media industry, and the lack of infrastructural support for women journalists. In her Facebook post, Mohan, the journalist with the Metro Vaartha, listed various incidents that women in media organisations face. “26 March was not the only black day for women journalists,” she wrote. “Isn’t it also a black day whenever as women, we break news, or are rewarded at work, we hear that all-too-familiar snide comment—that we’re given this due to gender favouritism, or for our sexuality? Isn’t every such day a black day for women journalists?”
“Journalism in Malayalam, like every other industry, remains a man’s world,” the author and former journalist KR Meera told me. Shahina KK said, “In every profession, women need to put in a lot more effort to withstand and make a mark for themselves. The media industry is more so.” “No magazine or newspaper would conduct an investigative series on the working conditions of women in media,” Meera added. “Are their basic needs taken care of? Are they granted same days of maternity leave as in other professions? Do they have anti-harassment committees in their offices?”
Both Meera and Mohan, along with several women who attended the NWMI protests, criticised the KUWJ—a more formally organised group than the NWMI—for failing to take action when the rights of women journalists in particular were involved. By their inaction, Shahina said, the KUWJ had effectively not stood by women journalists.
“KUWJ and its members are not insulated from the outside world which is sometimes ignorant of and sometimes blind to the necessity of upholding the democratic values of gender equality,” Meera said. She told me that, in early 2000, the organisation’s leaders had suggested that the KUWJ establish a women’s wing. Meera told me she had opposed the move. “I believe that a journalist’s union should bring more women to its leadership and provide a model for others rather than sidelining women by disconnecting them from the larger public space,” she said. Among its 62 office bearers, the KUWJ currently does not have a single woman journalist.
The women journalists’ criticism of the KUWJ appears to be borne out by the organisation’s actions in the days following the airing of the clip. In a press release it issued on 5 April, the KUWJ—which, on its website, claims to be the only organisation representing journalists in the state and lists one of its aims as “maintaining high standards of conduct and integrity in the profession”—termed the fallout of the Malayalam TV incident “a permanent taint on the media.” Instead of addressing the allegations of misconduct that had emerged against the channel, most of the press release was devoted to criticising the police investigation and the harassment that Mangalam TV’s staff and reporters faced from the police during it.
I spoke to Abdul Gafoor PA, a news editor at the Malayalam-language paper Madhyamam Daily, who is the president of the KUWJ. Gafoor insisted that the KUWJ represented all journalists in the state. While discussing the comments made by TK Hamsa, Gafoor told me, “This incident has affected the woman journalists a lot. Many female colleagues have also shared their difficulties with us.” Many in the community also criticised the KUWJ for granting membership to Kumar—according to the constitution of the organisation, Kumar, as the CEO of a channel, was not eligible to be a member. Gafoor told me that in a state committee meeting held on 8 April, the KUWJ state committee decided to not renew Kumar’s membership. He added that the KUWJ will seek explanations from the Mangalam TV employees involved in the airing of the tape, including Jayachandran. “Going forward, we would strongly oppose and take strong action against all those involved in this scandal,” he said. I asked Gafoor whether the KUWJ supported the NWMI protests. “We were not aware of the plans to protest by NWMI. They didn’t consult us and we didn’t know,” he said.
According to Shahina, this incident will make it difficult for women journalists to enter the profession. “For a middle-level journalist or a fresher trying to gain foothold in the industry, this will put them on the back foot,” Shahina said, before adding, “This has been a discouraging experience for all those women who come into this industry against their family’s wishes, often ignoring the protests of their family.” “What has been violated here is the fundamental right of women journalists to do a job and earn their livelihood,” she said.
Shahina’s worry does not seem misplaced. Ashraf told me that, following the responses to her resignation, she has decided to take a break from her career as a journalist. “Neither have I applied to any other job, nor did I get call from any other channel so far,” she said. She repeatedly told me that she loved her job. “I object to much of its practices, but I am very passionate about my job,” Ashraf added. “But I can’t do this.”
LEENA GITA REGHUNATH is a former Editorial Manager at The Caravan. Before this job, she had a brief stint as a public prosecutor and civil lawyer. During her days at law school, she freelanced for the city editions of The Hindu and the New Indian Express. She also has a master’s degree in English literature.