After a reporting trip into a more remote mountainous region, a reporter gets a text message from a public official who arranged the trip.
“Have you arrived safely?” he asked.
It is a reasonable question. It was a long trip out of the city through at times isolated areas.
The reporter answers “yes” and thanks the official for the assistance.
“What will you do now?” the officer replies.
It was late after a long day of reporting.
“Going to bed,” she replies.
“What are you wearing to bed?” he asked.
The reporter stops replying and cuts off all contact with the officer.
This was among examples of harassment faced by female reporters on duty in the Papua region of Indonesia, a region far east of the country that it is often viewed in Jakarta as wild country.
The incident was revealed to journalist Adi Marsiela, who while on a fact-finding trip to Papua last week discovered a persistent trend of harassment against female media personnel there.
“It ranges from everything from inappropriate text messages, to in person propositions of sex,” he said in Jakarta on Saturday, when presenting on the fact-finding trip supported by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
In one instance, he said, a public official invited a female reporter to a hotel for sex.
When rejected, he replied, “Why not? But the others often agree.”
“This to me signals that this happens more often than reported,” Adi, who is a member of the Independent Journalists Alliance (Aji) said.
Unlike in Jakarta or Bandung (where Adi is based), where any whiff of such harassment elicits rounds of condemnation, such conditions are considered par for the course in remote Papua.
Parts of the Papua rates as “less free” in the Indonesian Press Council’s media freedom index on working conditions of journalists in the country.
Journalists are routinely trailed by intelligence officers, for example, and while the restriction on foreign journalists entering Papua was lifted last year, international media who visit still face problems.
Getting sleazy messages from horny politicians is viewed as hardly an issue in the face of other troubles.
“Sexual harassment is seen as ‘normal’,” Adi said.
So normal, in fact, that the local news outlet Jubi no longer recruits female reporters to avoid such complications.
This was a decision made after a 2004 incident involving a secret relationship gone sour between a public official and a female reporter led editors to discover the conditions faced by their women journalists.
Reporters facing such harassment still rarely speak of it, said Jubi editor Victor Mambor, to avoid being fodder for industry gossip.
“Now we only hire female editors because we believe public officials view editors with more respect, and will not take advantage of them,” Victor told me.
Kuala Lumpur is not a remote region with strict information and immigration controls – at least not comparable to Papua.
Somewhat embarrassing situation
But just a couple of weeks ago, a colleague was faced with a somewhat embarrassing situation at a press conference, a situation none of her male colleagues would have had to face.
Following up on a proposal to ban kapcais from the city centre, my colleague asked Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Mansor to justify the proposal made on grounds of air quality, given the lower emissions of the two-wheelers versus other higher-powered vehicle.
His answer: “The ban is just a possibility, like the possibility of me marrying you.”
It was reported that those present – reporters, the mayor and a deputy minister – laughed at his joke.
Perhaps in a different setting – on a date maybe? – this flirtatious line by Tengku Adnan would be cute or even funny but at a press conference, it is certainly no laughing matter.
However, the fact that all present thought it laughable indicates a normalisation of such a practice, and that women, or indeed any journalist, should be okay with such unnecessary advances in the name of good humour and banter.
Where do you draw the line?
Is it something to shrug off if a politician asks a reporter with a cut on her lip if her boyfriend had bit her last night?
Should a reporter giggle coquettishly when a minister points to her engagement ring and turns the stone downwards to indicate displeasure that she is betrothed to someone (else)?
Does a reporter reply “haha” when a government source uses baby talk via text message as he continues to badger her to have dinner with him?
Does she stop talking to him completely when he starts asking her which hotel she is staying at, and which room number, during an outstation assignment?
These are not hypotheticals.
All of these happened to Malaysian journalists and the reporters involved had to continue to maintain ties with these sources and brush off their inappropriate remarks because getting the story is part of the job – and apparently withstanding harassment is that, too.
Don’t get me wrong.
There are female reporters who have used this to their advantage, and I am not here to judge people for their choices in trying to get ahead in their careers.
But therein lies the crux of the matter.
Why must female reporters put up with all this to move up, or indeed to do their job?