Malaysian journalists’ group urge for anti-sexual harassment laws

12 months ago

In August 2018, the Institute of Journalists (IoJ) began preliminary interviews with media personnel who have experienced sexual harassment at their workplace or in the course of carrying out their work.

The purpose of this at the time was to better establish the prevalence of sexual harassment, and glean whether media companies had robust anti-harassment policies that were effectively implemented.

It was discovered that in workplaces like the newsroom or the general media industry, many victims of sexual harassment dare not speak up as power dynamics are imbalanced. Many interviewees spoke of working in an environment that inadvertently encourages such harassment. This includes sexually objectifying comments and repeated unwanted sexual advances passed off as “jokes”. As one woman put it: “I feel like all my professional achievements have been reduced to how my body looks”.

Nine interviewees agreed to share their experiences for this statement, on the condition of anonymity. Four interviewees were from English news media; three from Malay news media; one from online media; and one worked in magazines. This breakdown reflects their period of employment when the incidents occurred.

1995: Locker-room talk in the newsroom was common, and you’re expected to just go along with it – it’s all just fun and jokes. One colleague crossed the line by putting his hand up my skirt. He claimed it was to show how short it was. I complained to my female supervisor, and she said it was my fault for dressing the way I did because “you can’t blame men for behaving like men”.

2000: When I was pregnant, a few of my male colleagues would wonder aloud about what breast milk tastes like, and if I would give them a “sample”. I eventually complained to my boss, who directed me to human resources, and they in turn told me to lighten up.

2009: I had an editor from another section text me at all hours of night under the pretense of work. The texts escalated to asking me what I was wearing, and what his sexual kinks were. I was so young and didn’t know what to do. He stopped when my own editor intervened and told him off.

2011: No one has targeted me specifically, but some of the men would openly discuss about who was the most “bangable chick” in the office. They made sure to repeatedly tell me I was high on the list because I have big breasts. I was so uncomfortable and disheartened but I didn’t even think of talking to HR. It definitely discouraged me from mixing with my colleagues unless absolutely necessary.

2011: I was covering a raid carried out by the police on an illegal brothel. Some of the male photographers, including my own colleague, were excitedly talking about taking pictures of the girls getting caught red-handed with their clients. When I expressed my disgust, my colleague replied that I could “contribute” to his collection instead. He later showed me some of his “collection” from another assignment. I still feel guilty for not speaking up about it because I didn’t want him to lose his job.

2011: When I first joined the company, my supervisor asked me out for drinks with the team. When I got to the venue, he was the only one there. It was a pleasant conversation at first, but when he started hitting on me, I politely said I wasn’t interested. After that, he would continue remarking on my looks, like “That dress really shows off your curves, you should wear it more”. I was too scared to say anything because I thought no one would believe me. When I did confide in another female colleague, she laughed at me and said he was “just like that”.

2014: Practically all the single women in the office were warned about a person from top management. He would frequently invite young women to his personal office for after hours drinks. Our immediate supervisors and human resources knew about this, but just told women to refuse if they felt uncomfortable. It was obvious that those who refused the invites tended to miss out on more coveted assignments or interviews.

2017: My colleague drunkenly texted me to tell me I was “sexy”, and beg me to go over to his apartment. When I said no, he left me numerous missed calls and texts throughout the night. The third time it happened, I complained to my boss and HR, and they both shrugged it off. HR told me it happened after work and I wasn’t in danger, so there wasn’t a problem. He continued to do that every time he was drunk, until he left my company.

2017: My colleague cornered me in the car park for a “quick kiss”. I was so shocked that I just froze, and he went for it. He said we should go out for dinner so that “we could do more”. I got into my car and burst into tears because of the shock of it. In the end, HR said their hands were tied because it was a he-said-she-said situation and of course he denied the whole thing.

The IoJ also requested five media outlets to clarify their internal policies for dealing with sexual harassment for this piece. Three media organisations responded to this request; Malaysiakini, Karangkraf, and BFM.

Malaysiakini CEO and co-founder Premesh Chandran said the company’s staff handbook lays out the parameters of what would be considered sexual harassment and the processes available to staff who are harassed.

Kumpulan Media Karangkraf meanwhile responded with a report of incidents at Grup Karangkraf, which owns the Malay daily Sinar Harian. Grup Karangkraf adheres to the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment (Code of Practice) issued by the Labour Department.

Between 2000 and 2018, there were six reported cases of sexual harassment at Grup Karangkraf. Of these, one staff was suspended; two were suspended and demoted, and two were fired. One case saw the accused hand in a 24-hour resignation. Grup Karangkraf plans to develop its own policy on sexual harassment in the near future.

BFM declined to comment in light of its ongoing investigations but said it would fully address our concerns after its investigation is completed.

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