Friday, April 13, 2012

On being a Reporter and a woman

By R Akhileshwari*

A woman professional encounters numerous problems including prejudice and sexual harassment in the course of her duty in a patriarchal society. A woman reporter is no different.  The extent to which her functioning is affected depends how strong she is mentally, where she is located, that is, whether she is in a still-traditional Asia, Africa or fairly advanced (in terms of women’s status in society) Europe or USA and how committed she is to her job. Having been a reporter for a quarter century in India, as Deccan Herald’s foreign correspondent in Washington DC, USA and as one who has travelled across the world on reporting assignments, one has experienced the best and worst of being a journalist.
          These recollections were set off by the horrific experience of Lara Logan, chief foreign correspondent of the American news network CBS, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt as she was covering the fall of President Hosni Mubarak following the uprising against his despotic rule. On February 11, 2011, as Lara was filming the unfolding events, she was attacked by a frenzied mob, separated from her team and rescued after 20-30 minutes by Egyptian soldiers and some women. Lara suffered injuries ( ).  Even as this incident (typically) was attempted to be suppressed by CBS, even as male reporters publicly (on Twitter) made insensitive and sexist comments about Lara wanting to beat a male colleague (of CNN) who had been earlier assaulted similarly by a mob (, of having got her deserts for ‘war mongering’, women activists urged women journalists everywhere to share their experiences considering the harassment experienced is pushed under the carpet by the women themselves out of fear of either being called back or kept out from ‘risky’ assignments or of being seen as less capable than men in some situations (
          My experiences have not been any different from those of women reporters elsewhere though fortunately they have not been as brutal as those of Lara Logan. I will share only one experience here that illustrates the problems women reporters face in the course of doing their job. If some men discourage us, there are others who support; if some men run us down, there are others who egg us on; if some men resent our achievements, there are others who recognize our talent and give us our due; if some refuse to co-operate, others go out of their way to help us.
           Back in 1990, when I had returned to Deccan Herald as its Andhra Pradesh correspondent quitting a university teaching job, my editor K N Hari Kumar asked if I was game to cover Namibian independence and later, if visa came through, perhaps even go to South Africa that was in throes of delirious joy on having dismantled apartheid and the release of the iconic Nelson Mandela from two-decade long incarceration. I didn’t think twice before saying yes even though two daughters, two and seven years old had to be taken care of.
          At that point, an average Indian knew just two things about South Africa: apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Only a few were aware of the fact that South Africa has a sizable population of Indian descent. And they knew even less about Namibia.
          Therefore, when I announced my editor’s decision to depute me to Namibia (to cover its independence on March 21, 1990) and South Africa, friends and relatives were horrified. They tried to dissuade me: “Why Africa, for God’s sake? Ask your editor to send you to the US or Europe.” Stereotypes of backward, tribal Africa and the prestige associated with a ‘developed’ USA and Europe were not scarce.
          But any journalist would barter her or his soul to be in Namibia and South Africa and witness history in the making, I argued. Namibia was getting independence from South Africa after 75 years of subjugation by the white ruling elites and South Africa itself was on the threshold of a new era of equity and justice and assertion of Black South African. With the release of Nelson Mandela, it had initiated the process of sharing power with the blacks and dismantling the horrors of apartheid.
          Ironically, even those who were familiar with these two countries gave no encouragement. A senior journalist and an expert on Namibia told a colleague of mine in Delhi that there was utter chaos in Namibia with every nerve being strained to accommodate VIPs and their entourages from about 147 countries and 20 heads of states. Besides hordes of journalists and TV crew from across the world had descended upon the country which was then the last country to throw off the colonial yoke. “And to top it all, you are sending a woman,” he told my colleague.
          My colleague however was confident of my ability to survive. He insisted that we meet this leading journalist-expert on African affairs notwithstanding his misplaced fears, to get a background briefing on Namibian and South African affairs. When we met, the expert was even more blunt. “Don’t go,” he advised me. All accommodation in the capital Windhoek (pronounced ‘windhook’) had been ‘commandeered’ by the fledgling government for the historic occasion and it was not advisable to go without confirmed accommodation. “Don’t be stupidly brave. Go back home,” said my guru-of-the-hour. I protested. I was not expecting five-star hotel luxuries. I will rough it out, share a room with five others (or more) if necessary.
          “You will be lucky if you can get even that,” said the sceptic expert. “Carry a rucksack. You will need it,” he said giving up the battle to din some sense in me. This advice came from a much travelled, much experienced journalist as my colleague and I stopped at his house hours before I left for the airport. Such was his insensitivity that his fears seeped into me, shaking my resolve. In the taxi, I confessed my fears to my senior who was accompanying me to see me off on my first trip abroad. He dismissed his friend’s dire predictions and assured me that I was made of sterner stuff and that his friend did not have the benefit of knowing me as my colleague did. I was assured, but only just. The butterflies in the tummy continued to flutter agitatedly.
          A sample of the problems ahead was given at the Indira Gandhi international airport in Delhi. At the various counters I had to go through, my intended destination, that is Windhoek, had the airlines staff scurrying to their colleagues for help. The girl who took my ticket did not know where Windhoek was. She went to a colleague who in turn went to a computer. He came back and asked, “Where is Windhoek?” In Namibia. “The computer says it is in South Africa. We can’t allow you.”
          A short lesson on the recent political developments, of South Africa relinquishing its rule over Namibia, of its forthcoming independence and the fact that I was a reporter assigned to cover the event convinced him of Namibia’s status. But, he insisted, I needed a visa even to pass through Johannesburg in South Africa enroute to Windhoek. I repeated what my travel agent told me, namely, a visa was not needed for a transit halt of one hour in Jo’burg. He was not convinced. I kept a tight leash on my temper. “Please clarify from your boss,” I suggested sweetly. “The computer is my boss,” he responded without blinking.
          The human boss whom I insisted on seeing was no less rigid. Either I sign an indemnity bond saying that I would bear all expenses in case I was sent back from Johannesburg for not possessing a visa or I won’t be allowed onto the plane, he informed. I signed pronto. I was not going to miss out, despite ill-informed computers and airline staff, the biggest event of the decade, the dawn of independence on Namibia.
          Yet my 10-day stay in Namibia proved anything but inconvenient. True, there was no accommodation to be got for love or money but there were plenty of people who were helpful, especially Indian government officials, a large contingent of whom had descended upon Namibia to ensure that the then Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s first tour abroad went off without a hitch. For two days, I had to make do with “borrowed accommodation”.
          On landing in Windhoek, I went to the only quality hotel in the town in search of Indian embassy officials, the first stop of help to travelling journos, to help me out. At the hotel I did not find any Embassy officials (considering India did not have diplomatic relations with South Africa in pursuance of its policy of boycotting racist regimes) However, when I ran into fellow Indians and discovered that they belonged to the Indian Overseas Communications who had arrived ahead of the PM’s contingent to take care of communications of the entourage, I poured out my woes of having no accommodation. Two officials offered their room (and eats) to me for a few hours to freshen up as they would not be using their room for they were busy setting up the communications logistics for the Prime Minister’s party and Indian journalists contingent accompanying the PM. That helped me to relax up enough to scout around for accommodation. It was available—a white Namibian agreed to accommodate me as his paying guest after great hesitation and opposition from his wife and son. I was a ‘black,’ but for the money he was getting from me, he was willing to suffer my ‘blackness’.
          When I announced my triumph to the newly made friends of IOCs (who had earlier pleaded inability to help) they were scandalized at my naivety and even willingness to be exploited. They offered to put me up in their room provided I did not mind having to share a room with two men. I was game. Something is better than nothing. But there was a hitch. The room would be available only with the arrival of the Prime Minister and his party which was two nights away. That did not resolve my problem of having no place to spend two nights (even if the days were spent in filing news stories)
          Another helpful official offered to shift into his friend’s room in the majestic Kalahari Sands Hotel and offered his room for the two nights. But there were two conditionalities: the fact that I would sleep in the room gave me no claim over it beyond one night, and that I would raise no protests on being asked to vacate the next morning. I instantly agreed to write off all my non-existent rights to his accommodation for one night. Two, I will not order any room service. He did not want to be left to deal with unpaid bills for services he did not use. My friend-in-need was apologetic that he could offer me only one night’s accommodation and that he himself, along with other officials, would be shelterless from the next day since the Namibian Government had commandeered all hotel rooms for its guests and the Indian mission officials had been given marching orders.
          The next day was hectic—I tried to get familiar with Windhoek, the media centres (Namibian and Indian). I got lost in the process. But managed to file a curtain-raiser and amazingly, ran into a Telugu-speaking journalist. Telugu never sounded sweeter and Telugu men were never so good to be with! He shared the info that the South African media was throwing a party for the foreign media persons at the prestigious Namibian press centre and the Namibian President-designate Sam Nujoma (pronounced nuyoma) was expected to drop in later in the evening. The reporter who was with a news agency had just committed a cardinal journalistic sin, of sharing and cooperating with a competitor. But the joy of finding one’s own on foreign shores has the strength of melting away petty professional rules.

          Windhoek proved a shock, defying all my pre-conceived notions of an African city. I had expected it to be crowded, dirty, chaotic. But Windhoek, which had barely 1.2. million people, was totally modern with high-rise buildings, plush insides, auto banks, carry-outs, wide, immaculate roads, and highly disciplined traffic which comprised cars to the exclusion of every other kind of vehicle. Windhoek was a city of cars. Car is a status symbol with every white family owning one, some two. However, there are a few blacks who owned cars but lived invariably in slums. The wide roads and thin traffic is a joy to the Windhoek motorists. They think nothing of zooming at 100 kmph in the city. A culture shock was the fact that motorists stopped dutifully at red light on chowrastas even at midnight when there would be not a single vehicle in sight!
          Another culture shock was the fact that there was no public transport system in Windhoek. The poor who lived in areas designated for blacks under the apartheid system, about 15-20 km away from Windhoek (a “whites only”), travelled to their workplace in the city in taxis which are run by blacks. These taxis are nearest to a public transport system. They were cheap and frequent.
          Apparently, the poor and the underprivileged, almost all being blacks, never figured in the scheme of things of the racist colonial government. Facilities were created to serve the specific purpose of the rulers and not for the benefit of the local people. For instance, the highways in Namibia were very wide and in perfect condition, not merely to facilitate traffic but also to double up as landing places for helicopters and smaller planes in the rocky land of Namibia in the eventuality of a rebellion by the blacks or an attack from a hostile neighbour.
          Windhoek went dead by 6 p.m when business came to a halt. With shops closing down, the black workers stream out of the city and head for Katatura and Khomasdal, the black townships. The whites retire to their well-fenced and protected homes. The few restaurants are crowded, exclusively by whites. The only places that are open after 6 pm are the bars and take-away joints, which are frequented by blacks.
          Alcoholism, gambling and other vices were rampant among black men—because there is no entertainment worth the name and because, of the widespread unemployment of 35-40 per cent. Then, there were very few movie houses and TV undeveloped in content. In any case, it was too costly a luxury which very few blacks could afford. The “people entertainment” comprised soccer and music.
          The evening in Namibian Press Centre was a boon. A team of Indian officials had arrived to oversee the facilities for the Indian media (which then comprised the newspapers, All India Radio and Doordarshan). On hearing of my homelessness, the top official decided that I too was eligible for the government-provided accommodation and other facilities. But the only hitch was the building that had been prepared for the Indian media contingent would be unoccupied since the party was arriving only the next day. Would I be brave enough to spend a night in a room all by myself in a building that would have no women and very few men? Beggars have no choice, so I agreed. At the end of the evening, I vacated from the hotel room and with great relief and not a small amount of trepidation checked into the media building. The room would have to be shared with another journalist, the official incharge informed me sheepishly. No issues, I assured him. It is a male, and he is with AIR, he said. No worries, I said. They would be checking sometime in the middle of the night, he said. As I went to bed looking forward to March 21 evening when the newest independent country would join the galaxy of free nations, I noticed two beautifully wrapped packages placed next to each bed. I ignored them as the day’s events had been too much and the comfort of an assured accommodation had chased out all other thoughts. I was woken up sometime in the night with the arrival of my fellow journalist. He asked if I would move out into another room considering that I might get disturbed by his work. He was from AIR and he would be filing his stories and updating them through the next two nights. I assured him that I had the ability to sleep through an earthquake too. The next morning he informed me that he was moving out to be closer to a fellow AIR colleague. Hooray! I had the room to myself and happily he hadn’t used the bathroom, bless him. Only later I realized that my gifts, left carelessly on the floor where they had been placed by the Indian official, had disappeared. The male journo had decided that a female journo had no use for a bottle of Scotch and a carton of Marlboro cigarettes!
          The day was spent filing another story on Namibia and in evening, the authorities shepherded us into a bus to take us to the stadium where a free Namibia would be ushered into existence. The seniors were happy to sit in their rooms and watch the event on live TV but I wanted to live the event. The atmosphere was electrifying. I experienced what I had missed by accident of birth: August 15, 1947.
* Former Special Correspondent of Deccan Herald,  presently, Head, Dept of Mass Communication, Loyola Academy, Secunderabad.

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