Workplace harassment: Do Arabic media institutions provide a safe working environment?
Zeinab Masri – Saleh Malas – Yamen al-Maghribi
In places and times chosen for official meetings and planning work, and under the umbrella of training in the production of journalistic investigations, a journalism trainer working in international and Arab institutions harassed female journalists, according to their testimonies. Some of them said they were even subjected to sexual assault and rape.
One of those testimonies was told by an unidentified female Syrian journalist who participated in a workshop on investigative journalism in December 2015 in Amman. There, the journalist took advantage of his professional position to take her to his room and then tried to assault her sexually.
In the same vein, a well-known Arab journalist, who worked as a trainer and presenter in several channels, was accused of harassment by female journalists, in September of 2018, after promising them with work contracts in an international institution where he works, but then tried to abuse them sexually. Testimonies from “survivors” said that the journalist had previously harassed them in more than one institution where he worked over the previous five years.
With every new incident, talk about harassment escalates in the Arab region, and media institutions are referred to as one of the environments that provide appropriate conditions for practicing harassment-related behaviors. This is mainly due to the nature of the profession, which needs contact and communication with journalists, sources, and guests, in addition to travel and movement accompanied by co-workers during the coverage.
In the Syrian case, no incidents of harassment have been reported in media organizations, or at least not publicly disclosed. Enab Baladi obtained several undocumented cases of harassment on more than one level in some Syrian institutions, including one by a journalist working in Turkey. She talked about “unnatural” rapprochement and verbal harassment by her manager through social media messaging, which forced her to resign and leave the country.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with human rights activists and experts, who have participated in the preparation of gender policies in Syrian media institutions, the measures that institutions must take to provide safe work environments for their workers and avoid harassment, and the mechanisms for dealing with these incidents in case they happen.
To control the causes of harassment
Procedures and measures that must be activated in institutions
The testimonies of the victims documented were identical in most cases, and the information contained therein was nearly similar, all together, as the “harasser” used his profession and exploited his position in the institutions in which he works as a cover for his violations against his colleagues.
Those testimonies raised the question of the nature of the circumstances that would prepare for incidents of harassment in media organizations, and the responsibilities that they had to take to spare their employees facing these violations.
|The 2019 International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment at Work defines harassment as “the combination of unacceptable behavior, practices, or threats, whether one time or again, that aims or leads to physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm, including gender harassment.”|
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Razan Obaid, a psychology counselor from Jordan, indicated that harassment, in general, is related to unhealthy environmental conditions, which lie in the presence of disturbing thoughts among individuals, or due to an environmental upbringing that contains family or social problems. This applies to the related circumstances of people working in media organizations.
Dr. Obaid, who provided training in Syrian media organizations about managing psychological pressure, said that the institution’s policies and laws might be among the conditions that precede the occurrence of cases of harassment in the workplace. Indeed, the lack of accountability measures or deterrent regulations makes it easier for the harasser to do his act in a social environment that obliges the victim to keep silent and condescending, fearing a “look of shame.”
Establishments are primarily responsible for protecting their employees from incidents of harassment at work, and their responsibility begins from the moment the employment contracts are signed. These must contain clauses that include introductory instructions and transparent procedures for dealing with any behavior that falls under the act of “harassment,” including penalties against “the harasser” and ways to protect the “person being harassed,” according to Obaid.
Harassment is a “point of view”!
Director of the “Lebanese Association for Social Integration” (Synergy-Takamol) and the gender advisor for “Free Press Unlimited,” Dr. Khatoun Haidar, who supervised the development of gender policies in several Syrian media outlets, identified in her interview with Enab Baladi three necessary procedures that organizations must follow to avoid any incidents of harassment in their workplace.
1. Every media organization, even the virtual one, adopts a gender policy, which includes detailed provisions that define and describe every behavior that is considered harassment. This is mainly because harassment is regarded as a “viewpoint” despite the existence of specific laws for it that differ from one society to another, so it cannot be generalized in all societies and environments. The role of the organization lies in defining it and informing employees about it.
Haidar added that the gender policy enacts laws within the framework of which the institution must work, which must be part of the work contract. She also noted the need to convince the employee to read, understand, and sign them in particular when signing the work contract.
Also, this policy must be openly public and has to be published on the official website of the institution, with free access to everyone. Thus, the institution protects itself legally and morally from violations and also protects its employees.
2. Determine the mechanism for dealing with complaints in a clear and detailed way within the institution. The complaint is usually to the direct official responsible for the employee. But, if the direct official is the one accused of the assault, the complaint should be addressed to the public administration, while it should be to the board of directors if the general manager of the institution is the accused.
Dr. Haidar pointed out that the receiver of the complaint should be responsible for keeping the complainant’s confidentiality until the administration starts an investigation and determines its mechanism so that the complaint does not become a “defamation” case, which requires “evidence” of the assault. Emails, witnesses, or another colleague have been harassed by the same person could constitute evidence.
- Regulate harassment laws, because, according to Haider, the use of certain words against employees and their propagation among colleagues can be considered as harassment and should be complained of, or a rumor that a colleague is harassing her, without filing a complaint, could be regarded as harassment.
Haidar pointed out that the most “severe” stage of harassment is when a boss harasses an employee at work. Therefore, there is a distinction between an employee inviting another colleague to go out after work, and when a boss, trainer, consultant, or anyone with a position of responsibility invites her. Any personal interaction from him is considered as “harassment,” because the employee is afraid of being dismissed from work for refusing the boss” invitation.
The regulations apply to men and women alike because the boss at work is in a position of authority, which pushes the employee to succumb to his invitation. Meanwhile, personal interaction among co-workers is not considered harassment except if it exceeds the appropriate request, because co-workers are at the same level of employment, so one of them can decline the invitation of the other without fear of the consequences of this rejection.
Syrian law far from criminalizing harassment
Attempts to fill legal gaps through media organizations” codes of conduct
An employee’s productivity is often related to how comfortable he is in the work environment in which he is present daily (usually five days a week). A healthy work environment requires the presence of essential elements, and the management of media organizations should not overlook their duties in this field.
Despite the seriousness of the act of harassment within the work environment, Syrian legislation is still devoid of any legal articles that prohibit or punish it. This leaves employees exposed to harassment without adequate protection, in addition to the absence of a safe work environment free from any physical or verbal harassment.
The Syrian legislator has not designated any particular law to combat harassment, despite its international obligations in this regard. General Comment No. “23” issued in 2016 by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regarding the right to enjoy just and favorable conditions of work stated that states parties (including Syria) have a fundamental obligation to ensure fulfillment, at the very least. The comment makes clear that states, in this context, have a responsibility to include in their laws “a definition of workplace harassment, which includes sexual harassment.”
Thus, the Syrian legislator overlooked the idea of combating harassment in the work environment for which international organizations supporting women seek. The Syrian lawyer and legal advisor on gender, freedom of expression, and media laws, Rahada Abdouch, in an interview with Enab Baladi highlighted, the law works according to material evidence, and every crime has a penalty and “no punishment without a text.” The act is not considered an offense without a text; that is, harassment is not criminalized in Syrian legislation.
“In Syrian law, there is no offense named harassment, but there are other names and acts that are only 30% similar,” she said.
The Syrian Penal Code stipulated “an act of indecency” in Article 493 as every act against another male or female that inflicts disgrace or harms his reputation (touching organs and touching the body) and does not require a medical report, according to the lawyer. It also involves a lack of consent, coercion, threat, or exploitation to practice an “act of indecency.”
The law punishes the perpetrator of the “indecent act” with hard labor for no less than 12 years, and the minimum penalty is 18 years if the offense is committed against a minor who does not exceed 15 years.
In its Article No. 504, the legislator punishes anyone who seduces a girl with a promise to marry and take her virginity with imprisonment of up to five years, and a fine of up to 300 Syrian pounds ( SYP- 0.01 USD) or either of the two penalties, if the act does not require more severe punishment.
Article No. 505 stipulates that anyone who touches or caresses indecently a minor who has not yet reached the age of 15, whether male or female or a girl or woman of more than 15 years of age without their consent, shall be punished with imprisonment for a period not exceeding one and a half years.
Article 506 of the same law punishes the act of indecency, which includes every act that causes shame, and the perpetrator is keen to commit it in secret. The penalty for this offense is aggravated imprisonment for three days or a fine not exceeding 75 SYP (0.034 USD) or with both punishments.
In separate articles, the Syrian Penal Code punishes acts that are subject to public morals and ethics, without mentioning any expression of harassment.
According to Abdouch, harassment is sexual bothering in the form of an unwelcomed verb or expression by one of the sexes towards the other, violating the person’s private space, especially when he feels annoyed and the perpetrator has crossed the safety and security line.
The Syrian women’s organizations demanded that the Syrian labor law include a provision on harassment of women or men during work, like the French law. The penalty is within the work itself, such as suspension from work, after including a definition of harassment according to the global definition, and not according to Syrian laws, as Abdouch recommended.
This recommendation was always attached to the reports submitted by civil society in parallel with the periodic government report every four years inside Syria, with regard to the “CEDAW” convention (the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women), which Syria ratified in 2003.
The responsibility of organizations to address harassment
Amid the lack of legislation regulating harassment in Syria, lawyer Abdouch recommended that Syrian media engage in ensuring a safe working environment by undertaking preventive measures to avoid harassment in the institution or addressing the situation immediately. This could include codes of conduct to protect workers. The organization’s direction is committed to respecting this code to be signed by all those who want to work within the organization.
The code of conduct should include binding regulations to improve the status of women in the media and the working condition within the media institution. According to Abdouch, the code of conduct published by the Syrian Female Journalists Network in 2015 can be reliable as it stresses the principles of human rights, respect for women’s dignity, raising awareness on the concepts of gender-based violence against women in all its forms and all fields. Any party violating this code, including media institutions or Syrian individuals who have already signed it, can be prosecuted. In other words, the perpetrator of the violence, who has ratified the code in question, may be expelled from the institution.
The content of the Code of Conduct stipulates that the direction of the organization is compelled to protect the complainant who has been subject to harassment, and protects his or her confidential information, in addition to including within the institution a legal department autonomous from the administrative board, apart from an impartial investigation committee.
If the Commission of Inquiry does not respect the secrecy and impartiality of the plaintiff, the case will be referred to the “Commission of Administration and Inspection,” which has a decision-making power that is superior to the state ministries and less stringent than the compulsory powers of the Council of Ministers. Therefore, its investigations must be impartial, according to Abdouch. This is the case of the Syrian public media.
As for private media, if the institution’s investigative committee is unreliable, the complaint must be submitted to a private arbitration body that the institution complies with. The contracts for the establishment of media institutions must include this particular process.
Within the context of the process of harassment complaint examination, it is necessary, according to Abdouch, to include an investigation that covers all its aspects (documents, witnesses, circumstances, evidence), after raising the awareness among the workers and ensuring a permanent sensitivity to its risks by the direction of the institution.
According to Abdouch, among the acts that are considered as harassment are all excessive body looks, annoying flirting, whistling, chasing, jokes that have a sexual connotation, and the sexual-oriented speech such as the description of body parts, when one person reveals his or her body in front of the other, sexual requests and threats such as dirty phone calls, the publication of compromising photos, even if they are erroneous, words with sexual orientation and facts that disturb others and that can lead to severe harassment and serious violations.
Harassment takes many forms, according to Abdouch, such as excessive physical contact with the other, and unwanted physical contact outside working hours for purposes unrelated to the needs of work.
“Blaming the victim” and unclear processes
Reasons why harassment goes unnoticed
One of the most important problems that women in Syrian society encounter in cases of sexual harassment is the “victim-blaming mentality” to justify sexual harassment against women.
This prevailing culture in society means that much of the public debate about every incident of harassment in institutions tends to focus on the reasons behind the harassment, or even causes of the delay in publicizing the harassment or even filing a complaint against the harasser.
Syrian social researcher Talal Mustafa explained to Enab Baladi that the feeling of fear from the social opinion towards the person who has been harassed is the first factor that urges him not to disclose this fact.
The victim hides the fact of being harassed for fear of negative criticism that may turn him or her into a guilty person, aside from the victim’s awareness and age, which play an essential role in not disclosing the act of harassment. The fear of the consequences of reporting an incident of harassment is also a reason for the victim to remain silent.
According to Mustafa, when disclosing the identity of the harasser, sometimes the victim fails to ensure her/his safety or that of her/his family against any potential threat resulting from reporting the act of harassment.
In addition, the lack of a precise mechanism for filing a complaint about an incident of harassment in media working institutions, or the lack of evidence to prove the facts upon which the harassment took place, limits the victim’s ability to report that they have been a victim of harassment, according to Mustafa.
In this case, the media organization’s code of conduct must include a guarantee from the institution’s administration to protect the victim of harassment and witnesses from any arbitrary measure or reprisal discrimination, in particular when the aggressor is at a high professional level within the functional hierarchy (director or head of a department). Thus, it is necessary to protect the right of the victim to prosecute the aggressor and also to defend the right of the witness to testify about the facts he or she has seen.
Moreover, the lack of a precise mechanism for filing a complaint about an incident of harassment in media work institutions, or the lack of evidence to prove the facts from which the harassment took place, reduces the possibility for the victim to report that he or she has been harassed, added Mustafa.
There is a group of people who are afraid to announce the incident of harassment because the event could result in the loss of employment; though, sometimes there is financial compensation that the institution provides to the victim of the harassment.
The organization’s management must guarantee a safe work environment in which the employee believes he or she is capable of productive work. Productivity also thrives in institutions that offer comfortable workspaces, which is reflected in the employee’s loyalty to work within the media organization.
A step to breach the silence
Journalists told their stories through electronic platforms and social media. Dozens of women around the world have done the same thing after being harassed. Resorting to electronic platforms and social media enabled the women to easily transmit their voices to everyone, as a means of pressure, to show support for the campaigns and to demand sanctions on the harassers.
Whenever there is an incident of harassment or violation of the rights of female journalists and Syrian women, campaigns of solidarity with the victim emerge on social networks, based on hashtags related to the incident itself.
The importance of solidarity campaigns with the victims of sexual harassment lies in the fact that they urge to break the barrier of silence so that these issues do not remain unheard of in the Syrian society, the director of the Syrian Women Journalists Network, Rola Asad, told Enab Baladi.
According to a survey conducted by the network in late 2019, 25% of Syrian women journalists have been victims of sexual harassment, 30% have been abused because of their gender, while 70% of the participants confirmed an increase in violence against women journalists.
Feminist activist Mai al-Arabi believes that solidarity campaigns are capable of raising awareness about harassment and violence in countries devoid of democracy. This can lead to changes in laws protecting women and journalists, provided that regular campaigns can put pressure on governments.
The importance of the campaigns does not depend on putting pressure on the harassers and preventing legal bodies or institutions from shielding them or remaining silent about their behavior, but rather their impact extends to preventing those who are thinking about committing harassment from taking that action.
The gender-based violence specialist from the organization Ihyaa Amal, Nasreen al-Mousa, explained to Enab Baladi the possibility of benefiting from solidarity campaigns via social media. Indeed, this can largely turn the issue into a public opinion problem, which may be considered a positive step to encourage women not to remain silent. This is in addition to the fact that this method has proven to be very useful in mobilizing support and advocacy for the victim.
Social network campaigns provide psychological support, at least temporarily, to victims of harassment. Thus, it may encourage silent victims to follow the same path and reveal their experiences and put more pressure on less harassment, according to al-Mousa.
Solidarity campaigns … How do they affect the internal law of press institutions?
Though social network campaigns play an important role in supporting women who decide to reveal the violations they have been subjected to, it is not enough, according to the feminist and political activist and writer Mia al-Rahbi.
In her interview with Enab Baladi, Rahbi stressed that civil society and women’s organizations need to work on a comprehensive strategy to protect women by providing them with appropriate support.
The impact of campaigns on social networks depends not only on advocating victims, but also pressuring journalistic institutions to provide greater protection for women journalists, not to protect rapists and those accused of harassment, and to enact laws to prevent these forms of violence. This contributes directly to reducing violations against Syrian women journalists working in Syrian media institutions.
While feminist activist al-Arabi asserted that solidarity campaigns are capable of pushing Syrian media institutions towards a broader movement against the phenomenon of harassment, the director of the Syrian Women Journalists Network, Rola Asad, affirmed that these policies and laws must be realistic, starting from legally registering the institutions in the country in which they are located.
Al-Rahbi added that solidarity campaigns via social media could make organizations take into account the fact that there are supporters of women who have been abused.
The gender-based violence specialist at Ihyaa Amal, al-Mousa, said that these campaigns contribute to the enforcement of laws put in place by institutions on the ground, and not as documents presented to supporters to show the institutions in the best way.
According to al-Mousa, these campaigns are pushing towards the implementation of laws and the development of articles to punish the aggressors. These can lead to dismissal and blacklisting about work.
The most critical issue facing social media campaigns in solidarity with those who have been subjected to harassment and other violations against them is the short duration of these campaigns, which last for several days and then end.
The short period and the absence of permanence in these campaigns affect the impact that they are supposed to have on societal awareness or press institutions. At the same time, al-Arabi stressed that these short campaigns could have a long term effect. Yet, a single campaign has little impact.
However, the director of the “Syrian Women Journalists Network” clarified that permanence comes from permanent solidarity, as the positions of individuals and institutions are what give this feature to solidarity campaigns. This is important for survivors because it turns the matter into a public issue and pushes towards laws to reduce harassment since these accidents are not individual cases; the more they talk, the more accumulation we have.
Despite the modest impact of the solidarity campaigns for their short period and lack of permanence, al-Rahbi insisted that there are still positive indications resulting from them through the support and advocacy of the victims and the loud voices to expose the violations, even if they are few. However, there is excellent support from women and men, so “I am optimistic that the incidents of violence will not be tolerated anymore, at least from the people whose voices reach the public opinion,” she added.
Tips to prevent harassment during the practice of journalistic work
In a report entitled “Maintaining Borders with Sources, Colleagues and Supervisors,” issued in December 2017, and based on interviews with female journalists and other sources, the “Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma” provided advice to female journalists to prevent harassment while practicing journalism, and instructions in case a woman is harassed by a colleague or an employer.
The report stated that to reduce the chances of harassment from press sources during work, women journalists should choose a “safe” public place for meetings when meeting with a source they do not know in advance, to avoid situations that the source might interpret as falling outside the limits of professionalism, in terms of location or timing.
According to the report, female journalists should avoid being alone with anyone they do not know or trust. This means that the journalist should avoid going with the source to his hotel room or his private places, and decline requests by a colleague or friend to accompany him as a photographer or note-taker, if necessary. Having another journalist at the interview makes it clear that it is a job interview.
The report advises female journalists, when they go in press coverage to a remote or private place, to alert their colleagues and inform them of the location of the coverage, the people they will meet, and the expected time for their return.
It is also recommended to pay attention to the way of dressing and act with impartiality and professionalism, especially when meeting the source for the first time. The report also advises journalists to set limits in dealing from the beginning, through picking the appropriate words, tone of voice, body language, and clothing, and to maintain a friendly, professional distance while being severe about relations with sources.
The report emphasized the need for female journalists to engage or build a network that includes women working in the journalistic field or a network of trusted colleagues in general, to share information about “harassers” or people who do not observe societal boundaries, while providing moral and psychological support.
This is in addition to the necessity for solidarity and defense of people who are subjected to harassment, and informing supervisors of these behaviors, and pressure others, including men, to speak out when they witness incidents of harassment or abuse.
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