A PIECE which described “sexual harassment culture in Southeast Asia” has sparked debate in Malaysia this week, with journalists, parliamentarians and industry groups calling for legal and cultural change on the issue.
The report entitled “Female journalists, male politicians and the epidemic of sexual harassment in Asean” was published by Asian Correspondent on Monday, revealing testimony of female media workers in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Journalists reported being subjected to lewd comments, sexually explicit messages and unwanted physical contact while engaging with male politicians, which was said to be “sanctioned by the bigwigs of the media industry where senior male editors condone, or in some cases, encourage such behaviour.”
The claims reflect the findings of a survey conducted by the International Federation of Journalists across the Asia Pacific including Malaysia from 2015, which found that almost one in five female journalists had been sexually harassed at work.
Asked about the allegations by Malaysiakini on Tuesday, however, Malaysia’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) President Mohd Taufek Razak said that sexual harassment of female journalists was “not new” and suggested that reporters use “appropriate ways to obtain news stories”.
“Do not wear clothes that are too revealing or sexy, decline interviews at inappropriate places such as nightclubs or a politician’s home,” he said.
“In the context of female journalists, particularly attractive ones, this [sexual harassment] can easily happen if both sides reciprocate.”
Taufek’s comments drew widespread criticism online, including from Malaysian parliamentarian Teresa Kok who called the response “terrible”.
“The statement asking female journalists to not dress sexily is ridiculous. Until today, I’ve never seen a journalist in the field with a miniskirt or tank top or something as ridiculous as that,” said Vathani Panirchellvum, a journalist from The Star and former member of the NUJ’s executive council.
Another female Malaysian lawmaker Hannah Yeoh, from the Selangor State Assembly, posted that “Awareness is key. And these journalists have set the ball rolling…”
Yeoh told Asian Correspondent that “legislation and education key starting points. What amounts to harassment? Girls must be taught.”
She also called NUJ President Taufek’s comments “completely off the mark.”
Industry groups respond
On Wednesday, media advocacy groups Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) and Jakarta-based Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) released a public statement, in which they expressed “serious concern” over the issues raised in the piece.
“Recognising that it is a common problem in both countries and across the region, we would like to urge concerned parties and reject any form of sexual harassment against all journalists or in these particular cases, against female journalists.”
“The problem has been ignored for a long time, as it is considered not an important issue or has been ‘normalised’ as part of daily interactions between journalists and their news sources,” it said.
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Geramm and AJI recommended that education should be provided to media employees on what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do if victimised. “We demand all sources, regardless of their status, to show respect towards journalists on duty.”
The Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IoJ) in a statement commended female journalists “who had the strength and come out” regarding sexual harassment and called for a “halt to such practices”, as well as for Malaysian media organisations to come up with strong codes of conduct.
“Policies and standards must be put into place to address this issue if we are to see better journalism in our respective countries,” it said.
“Sexual crimes are serious but sadly has been taken ever so lightly mainly due to the general gender discrimination towards women in a workplace,” Malaysian Trades Union Congress President Abdul Halim Mansor told Berita Daily.
Changes to Malaysia’s 1955 Employment Act were needed, said Abdul, noting that sexual harassment was covered only in a “minor scope”. The IFJ’s 2015 study found that 59 percent of female journalists who had been sexually harassed said that perpetrators were their superiors at work.
National Union ‘regrets’ initial response
After a backlash to Taufek’s comments to Malaysiakini, the NUJ released a subsequent statement in which it said “we realise that the dressing and appearance of a journalist should not be blamed as a cause of sexual harassment. We do not endorse such a stance.”
“The Union also regrets the impression given by specific remarks that appeared to victim blame,” it added.
Malaysian parliamentarian Teresa Kok told Asian Correspondent that “I will recommend the journalists concerned to expose the politicians who have harassed them in the media.”
“Boycott these kind of people. Don’t interview them and don’t give them coverage.”
But as one journalist was quoted as saying in Monday’s piece: “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.”
Additional reporting from Lee Lian Kong