The next stage in the media’s global #metoo moment looks set to be played out in an Indian court next week. And, as in Australia, the laws of defamation are being used to power the backlash.

It’s high stakes, with a charge of criminal defamation against Priya Ramani, one of a number of women journalists who have accused one of India’s most high profile journalists and editors, M.J.Akbar, of sexual harassment while he was editor of The Asian Age. Until last Wednesday, Akbar was Minister of State for External Affairs in the Modi government.

Akbar “is using the law of criminal defamation exactly as it is meant to be used,” says The Wire public editor Rajshree Chandra: “as a legalised weapon in the hands of the rich and powerful to silence and intimidate not just critics, but also who they violate, oppress and prey upon.”

The Indian media community has long campaigned against criminal defamation and the Editors Guild of India has asked that the case be dropped. Akbar is a former head of the guild.

20 other journalists from Akbar’s former paper have written to the court, saying that Ramani “spoke not only about her personal experience but also lifted the lid on the culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation that Mr Akbar engendered and presided over at The Asian Age.” They are asking to give evidence of examples that they experienced or witnessed at the paper.

Earlier last week, in a similar case, actor Alok Nath initiated civil defamation against writer and producer Vinta Nanda, who had accused him of raping her when they worked together in the mid-1990s. About four other actors have largely confirmed Nanda’s reports of Nath’s behaviour.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, The Wire — which has largely supported #metoo — was forced to apologise for allowing a complaint against one of its own journalists to be trivialised. On his web show, Jan Gan ki Baat, consulting editor Vinod Dua dismissed a 1989 complaint against him by film-maker Nistha Jain. The Wire (which launched in 2015) has now set up an independent committee to investigate Dua’s actions.

In other cases in India’s English-language media, journalists have stood down or resigned.

Landing in the middle of the world’s largest media and entertainment industry, the #metoo movement in India is both home-grown and influenced by foreign, largely US exposures. While harassment has been a long-term industry problem, the current moment can be traced to a February 2017 rape in the Malayalam film industry in Kerala.

Allegations of harassment and assault bubbled on through social media over the following 18 months, with allegations and lists of offenders circulating on-line, including with the #metoo tag from October 2017.

Then in late September this year, former Bollywood star (and now US resident) Tanushree Dutta said in an interview that fellow actor Nana Patekar had harassed her on a 2009 film soot. Although she had complained at the time (and repeated the allegations), in the #metoo context, it provided the spark for the issue to explode into the mainstream.

In the following three weeks, actors, directors, journalists, writers, and comedians were publicly named.

In both the US and in Australia, the public #metoo moments have been driven by reporters like Ronan Farrow and Tracey Spicer. In India, the reports have been broken by the women themselves, usually through social media.

Organisations such as the Network of Women in Media in India have provided a platform for women to tell their own stories, provide emotional support and, where necessary, link women with legal support. They are also supporting media in setting up proper internal processes.

Within Indian media organisations there has been a new-found enthusiasm to properly implement (or at least to be seen to properly implement) long-standing statutory obligations to have appropriate internal structures to deal with harassment and gender biases. However, the law puts a time limit of up to six months for complaints to be made.

Laxmi Murthy from Network of Women in Media India says providing a voice is its own value: “Many women don’t want to go through an investigation. But they want the chance to speak, to be heard.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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