TWO years ago, while pursuing a story on Jakarta politics, April* messaged an official in the Indonesian government to ask for his comment.
He replied by asking her why she, a 34-year-old female journalist, was still single and whether she had a boyfriend. When she answered she’s actively dating someone, he asked her how big her partner’s penis was.
Last year, she approached the official again for his comment on another issue. Once more, he asked about the size of her partner’s penis. April, who has worked in the media industry for nine years in Jakarta, is still in contact with the official until today.
“I have no choice,” she told Asian Correspondent.
In 2014, a Malaysian politician from the ruling political party sent Ally*, a junior reporter with a local news site, messages about how he had dreamt about her riding him in bed. Once, during an interview in his office, he stroked her thigh when his assistant left the room briefly.
Ally and April join the hordes of female professionals worldwide, from the film industry to the restaurateurs, who have come forth with accounts of being sexually harassed by men in powerful positions during the course of their work. Journalism is no exception.
Speaking to Asian Correspondent, female journalists in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines spoke of the same culture of unwanted sexual behaviour by the male politicians they interview, from innuendos and lewd texts to the more serious, such as groping and forcible kissings.
All eight journalists who spoke to us allege personal experiences of sexual harassment or assault by the elected officials in their countries’ hallowed halls of democracy. All also attest to having witnessed or knowledge of unwanted sexual advances on their colleagues as well.
In a 10 month investigation, 13 women told me Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted them. 3 allege rape: https://t.co/7XKS6CotVP
— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) October 10, 2017
A growing number of their peers in the US have come forth to name and shame their powerful abusers, forcing several members of Congress, from both Democratic and Republican parties, to resign or retire. In the UK, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was said to have been pressured into resigning after admitting he had touched a female journalist’s knee back in 2002.
Unlike them, however, testimonies from these journalists speak of a sexual harassment culture in Southeast Asia that is more normalised, without impunity and sanctioned by the bigwigs of the media industry where senior male editors condone, or in some cases, encourage such behaviour.
Like Harvey Weinstein’s sexual exploits, female journalists find themselves at the mercy of a disproportionate balance of power at the hands of their harassers occupying their countries’ legislative bodies. Like Weinstein, male politicians are enabled and encouraged by the power structures that make it difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, to speak out against, in addition to the public’s general propensity of doubting sexual violence victims.
At the height of his career, Weinstein was an entertainment mogul who can make or break an upcoming star’s career – many acquiesced with and stayed silent about his sexual abuse on them until now, when his power is fading, before going public with their story.
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A young female journalist sits in the same vulnerable position as Weinstein’s young prey. Their sexuality is commonly seen as a unique “bargaining chip” for the exchange of information from certain male politicians.
Alienating or refusing their unwanted sexual advances, and thus losing the exclusive interviews or information they were supposed to return to office with – the very keys to their professional future – makes these female reporters brush off these unwanted sexual advances with awkward laughs and to not report them to the authorities. Some even blamed themselves for the abuse. Rarely do these incidents get reported to their editors either.
“It’s a culture that is not just tolerated but in some ways, encouraged,” says Natashya Gutierrez, Rappler’s Southeast Asian Regional Correspondent. Gutierrez is one of the few female journalists Asian Correspondent interviewed, to allow us to use her name.
The rest insisted that they, as well as their perpetrators’ identities, be kept secret for fear of the damaging and expensive defamation suits if they went public, or the backlash that will ensue, which they foresee will likely not be favourable to them.
From numerous comments about her appearance to physical touching, Gutierrez has experienced her share of unwelcome behaviour from her powerful male subjects. Earlier this year, while interviewing an Indonesian government official for a story about terrorism in the region, he made several compliments on her physical appearance. She brushed those off gracefully. Towards the end, save for the unnecessary comments about her looks, Gutierrez had even thought the interview went pleasant enough.
“But when he led me out at the end of our meeting, he held the small of my back and kept his hand there. I moved away, evidently uncomfortable. What followed were text messages to meet again, even if there was no clear agenda for our meetings. I refused consecutive invites,” she told Asian Correspondent.
“I never saw him or talked to him ever again, but I also lost him as a source.”
Another reporter who allowed us to use her name was Diyana Ibrahim of Malaysia’s The Malaysian Insight.
She told Asian Correspondent about receiving persistent messages from a Malaysian Member of Parliament in the late or early hours of the day to ask about her personal life i.e. whether she had a boyfriend or not. At this point, she was already uncomfortable at their communication turning from professional to personal. She also knew that he was married, though there were rumours of him having affairs with other women.
His motives became clear later when he proceeded to ask her whether she would be free for dinner. She said no, but she did not reprimand or report him.
“For the sake of getting quotes and information for our stories, we have to maintain good relationships with people in powerful positions, some of which have ended up abusing their positions,” Diyana told Asian Correspondent.
“It’s disappointing that our working relationships turned out so. It affects our jobs, disturbs us and makes us feel very uncomfortable,” Diyana said.
Female journalists spoke of a culture so normalised that both the perpetrators and their victims aren’t even aware that the sexual innuendos and advances are harassment, but just something to be expected between someone holding power and their subordinates.
“The dominant culture where harassment is seen as something “normal as long as it’s not rape” is truly a pain in the ass,” Arzia T Wargadiredjia, a reporter for Vice Indonesia said.
Activist Ivy Josiah from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development said the key elements for sexual harassment are the ‘unwanted’ and ‘persistent’ nature of the behaviours.
“How do you know it’s sexual harassment? The moment you feel uncomfortable, the moment it is unwanted attention,” Josiah said. It goes beyond just physical penetration, and can range from a single catcall on the street to asking whether a reporter has a boyfriend, like in Diyana’s case.
“That’s just another way of asking ‘What is your sex life?'”, Josiah explained.
Josiah said we’ve always had this epidemic. Surveys corroborate her assertion.
One in three Malaysian women have experienced one or more forms of sexual harassment – In Indonesia, it’s 58 percent and Philippines 60 percent. It’s just as widespread or worse in the workplace – an online poll last year found around 60 percent of Malaysian workers from various sectors have been sexually harassed at work by a boss or someone senior. The numbers aren’t any better in Indonesia and the Philippines.
On the Hofstede’s Power Dynamic Index – which expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally – Malaysia scored the highest (100), followed by Indonesia (94) and Philippines (78). In contrast, the United States and United Kingdom scored 40 and 35, respectively.
This power appears to be bolstered by the number of men in all three Asean countries’ legislative bodies.
According to data by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and United Nations Women, only 29.5 percent of the Philippines lower house of Congress are women. That figure is lower still in Malaysia (10.4 percent) and Indonesia (19.8 percent).
In both Malaysia and Indonesia, there aren’t any standalone laws for sexual harassment as well.
It’s an environment that heightens the probability of sexual harassment, Malaysian MP Ong Kian Ming wrote last November in an op-ed which detailed how his female guest from overseas was harassed by a deputy minister during her visit to Parliament.
Male dominance aside, encouragement for disrespectful attitude towards female journalists also came in the form of by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s actions, Gutierrez said. During a nationally-televised press conference last May, then president-elect Duterte had wolf whistled and serenaded a female journalist who was asking him a question.
“Our chief executive in the Philippines has made rape jokes and inappropriate comments towards his female critics. This breeds a culture of acceptance or even permission to other men in power to do the same,” Gutierrez said.
Media companies are aware of what’s happening – in fact, some even exploit the situation. It is common for females to be hired based on their looks, female journalists said, so as to be used to draw certain powerful men to provide information to the companies.
Activists, including Josiah, consider editors or anyone who do not heed their employees’ grievances as “irresponsible” and should be considered as “aiding and abetting in a criminal act”.
Though Ally’s bosses knew of the minister’s lewd messages to her, she was told to capitalise on it to get a scoop about a political scandal. Once, at the request of her editor, she was sent to interview said minister in a bar after office hours.
Claiming his driver was off duty that night, Ally was made to drive him to the bar they were supposed to meet in.
“When we got to the bar, he seemed uncomfortable at how public and busy it was, so he rushed through his drinks and our conversation about work and urged me to take him home. The moment we stopped at his place, his hands were all over me – I had to shove him off as hard as I could and repeatedly tell him that I wasn’t that kind of girl,” Ally said.
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His advances did not stop at these two incidents. Neither did those of other politicians, from both sides of the political spectrum, at the “exclusive” parties Ally was invited to.
“I’d walk into a party sometimes and they’d greet me by grabbing and hugging me and then sticking their tongues in my mouth,” Ally said.
Declining these invitations weren’t possible all the time. Some said they would look up her address and pick her up. Others shoved money down her purse, or even tried to get her to go home with them.
Ally never thought herself as a sexual harassment victim then, figuring that this was just how the media works. Today, she counts herself lucky for not allowing things to get too out of control. But she wouldn’t want to go through all of it again, nor would she tell her juniors to accept these.
An Asean #MeToo?
— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 16, 2017
Around seven years ago, Waffa* who was 25-year-old then, was the only female journalist at one of Indonesia’s cities’ legislative sitting. When she tried to get a comment from the mayor afterwards, he groped her buttocks in front of all the other male reporters.
Furious, she told the mayor off in front of everyone, calling his action was inappropriate. He apologised and since then, has never repeated the same with Waffa.
When she recounted the incident to her office, she did not receive any support. Her editors even thought it was funny that she scolded the head of the city.
“I had hoped that they or my office had done something then because it’s something that has never happened to me before.”
“(They could have tried) anything, like sending a letter to the mayor or calling him to say that they regretted his act.”
As things usually go this side of the world, they didn’t. Waffa and the rest of the female journalists we interviewed are the very people shining light on grievances and assault towards women. Yet, when they themselves are victims, they could not avail themselves of the same avenues for redress.
There’s also the matter of the sexualised advances hindering their professional careers, from losing a story that could propel their name to not leaving the industry altogether. With this, the public loses the female perspective from the discourse.
Speaking up will be a difficult but necessary first step to take, many said. So is solidarity between female journalists, as well as support from their male colleagues and other men in powerful positions witnessing such behaviour.
Gutierrez said: “Small things help. Stop laughing when misogynistic statements are made. Publicise the harassment. Hold them to account. Raise the issue when they are campaigning.”
“Do not be silenced or nothing will change.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.
Have you experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at your workplace? We would like to speak to you. Email Lee Lian Kong at email@example.com or tweet her at @leeliankong.