TVF molestation charges raise questions about lack of sexual harassment policies in media start-ups

Aarefa Johari

A slew of molestation allegations against Arunabh Kumar, the founder of web entertainment company The Viral Fever, has raised questions about the work environments at some new-age media companies and their lack of strong sexual harassment redressal systems.

The controversy began on March 12, when the content-sharing website, Medium, published an anonymous post by a woman who claimed she was physically and verbally harassed by Kumar on several occasions during the two years that she worked at TVF from 2014 to 2016. The post alleged that Kumar made lewd comments to the woman, touched her inappropriately and suggested sex several times, and that another male colleague at TVF did not take her complaints seriously.

As the anonymous post began to go viral on Monday, several other women took to social media to make further sexual harassment allegations against Kumar. One woman claimed that he touched her inappropriately during a shoot she was directing last year. Another claimed Kumar ran his hand down her back during a casual conversation outside a casting studio, while a third alleged that he asked her to dance for him in the nude after a casual meeting.

TVF initially responded with an official statement on Monday afternoon, dismissing all the allegations as false, “ludicrous and defamatory”, and claiming that the company would “leave no stone unturned to find the author of the article and bring them to severe justice”.

Subsequently, one of TVF’s senior employees acknowledged the many social media complaints emerging through the day, assuring the women that the company would look into all the allegations.

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So far, none of the women who made the allegations have filed police complaints. While social media allegations run the risk of a media trial in an officially unreported case, they also raise concerns about hostile work cultures – in the entertainment industry in particular – that make it difficult for women to report sexual abuse.

Closing ranks

According to author Samit Basu, new-age, online media start-ups are not very different, culturally, from the male-dominated spheres of traditional film and television. While he did not want to comment specifically about the TVF controversy, Basu claimed that the work culture across the Indian entertainment industry has been largely sexist.

“To add to that, new media start-ups are so busy building their companies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the systems to look into sexual harassment are inefficient or missing,” said Basu. “Across different formats, insiders can close ranks against anyone who challenges the abuse of existing power structures.” This, according to Basu, makes it very hard for women to make official complaints when molestation takes place.

According to media watcher Naomi Datta, TVF’s official response to the anonymous woman’s allegations is reflective of this general unfavourable work environment. “The tone of their response is shocking and threatening, and makes them sound quite like the way in which the anonymous woman has described TVF,” said Datta.

In general, says Datta, most media companies tend to be lax setting up any human resource polices, let alone sexual harassment. “Unlike big corporate companies, new media companies are more informal and don’t often have robust Human Resources departments,” said Datta.

Employers need to provide safe environment

Not having firm HR policies to address sexual harassment complaints is, of course, a violation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act. Under the law, employers are required to set up internal complaints committees to inquire into sexual harassment complaints, but this is not its only function.

“Employers are also required to provide a safe environment for women to enable them to make complaints, and in cases where women don’t speak up, they have to make an effort to find out why someone is not confident enough to complain,” said Veena Gowda, a feminist lawyer in Mumbai.

Often, women’s complaints – on social media or otherwise – are disbelieved because women take several months or years to make the complaint, or continue to work in the same company despite the abuse. “But we still really need to understand the implications, for a woman, of filing a harassment complaint at work,” said Gowda. “For many, it could mean ruining their careers.”