Lack of organisational policies, other factors encourage sexual harassment in Nigerian newsrooms
By Ijeoma Okereke-Adagba
According to a recent research conducted by Women in News, one in two women experiences sexual harassment in the workplace, but only 30 per cent of the cases are reported.
Medinat Kanabe, then 21, just finished her Ordinary National Diploma (OND) programme in Mass Communications at the Lagos State Polytechnic (LASPOTECH), Ikorodu, in 2006, when she joined one of Nigeria’s major news organisation for her mandatory one-year-internship.
The newspaper’s office was located in Apapa, a Lagos neighbourhood notorious for traffic gridlock, frequent motor and motorcycle accidents, and persistent conflicts among the numerous “hustlers” who make their living from the sea port and many fuel dumps within the community.
Since technology was not yet in vogue at the time in Nigeria, journalists were required to be physically present in the office.
Ms Kanabe was staying with her sister in a nearby Navy Town community.
She said; “I attended navy school where I not only received basic military training but also mingled freely with male friends. So men have always been free with me but I have always been conscious of where to draw a line.
“This was the same lifestyle I adopted when I joined the newsroom but they have always tried to take advantage of me. But trust me, the male spirit in me has always set me free.”
Ms Kanabe recalled an incident when a senior colleague visited her at her sister’s place near the office so that he could use their toilet and “freshen up” since he could not go home due to the traffic logjam in the area.
“I was waiting in my sister’s room to finish up in the sitting room when he suddenly came in and grabbed me. But I was strong enough to fight him off and warned him never to do that,” she said.
Ms Kanabe said she immediately cut off communications with the predatory male colleague.
When she later joined another newspaper after her Higher National Diploma (HND) programme, Ms Kanabe said another senior colleague attempted to take advantage of her.
She said she had always joined others in the unnamed colleague’s car from the office “because we usually close late.”
“But on this day, he was passing by my place and I was the last passenger in the car. Because the car door was faulty, someone needed to open it for me from the outside.
“So when he jumped out of the car I had thought he simply wanted to open the door for me, but instead he opened and grabbed me. I was again lucky to fight him off and warned him not to try it again”.
Ms Kanabe did not report any of her experiences to the human resources departments of any of her newspapers. She told this reporter that she felt no need to as she had handled the situations.
Sexual harassment is believed to be rampant in Nigerian newsrooms, but many go unreported.
“I couldn’t count the number of people that asked me out, mostly married men with children. Almost every man you meet wants to take advantage of you,” Ms Kanabe said.
Like Ms Kanabe like Queen
Somewhere in Abuja, Queen Adaobi (not real name) was jobless for close to a year and desperate for any work, irrespective of the pay. Previously, she worked in an online media organisation as a communications graduate.
Upon employment, she looked forward to a fruitful career after passing her interview. Interestingly, her boss just overviewed the resume, and she was hired instantly after the October 2021 interview. Two months later, the 25-year-old realised why she got a “free pass”.
In the course of her work, Ms Adaobi was forced to extend her working hours to cover up for a colleague. According to her, the editor-in-chief always knew when a staff member was alone in the office.
That same day, he came to the office to check whether she was alone, advising her to reach out in case of any challenges.
Suddenly, he moved closer and hugged her. He pressed her so hard that she had to wriggle out of his grasp. He asked her to be free with him.
“Sir I am free with you, please let me go back to work,” she pleaded.
At this point, she understood where the conversation was heading. Queen wondered why her boss, who is in his late 50s, married to two wives with many children, was making advances on her. Nonetheless, she ignored him and went back to work.
Another encounter occurred when Queen’s boss asked her to help him raise his office’s blinds, an awkward request, but she obliged.
While she was on it, he grabbed her and forced his hands into her blouse. Then he struggled to unzip her trousers. Luckily for Queen, she overpowered him and immediately ran out of the building. This was Queen’s first sexual harassment encounter.
Queen had thought of quitting her new job, but she faced a grim risk of unemployment that is affecting 33 million Nigerians. However, she continued to work remotely and only went to the office during editorial meetings.
Queen experienced her second sexual harassment encounter in January 2022.
“I went to the bathroom to relieve myself and the next thing I saw was the editor-in-chief naked inside the bathroom. I ran out and when my colleague asked me what was wrong, I said nothing,” she said.
Notably, the office had only one bathroom for both male and female staff. The facility is accessible through the editor-in-chief’s office. According to Queen, she was not the only one harassed by their boss.
Queen said she did not report any of the incidents because her office has no human resources department not a workplace policy on sexual harassment.
Forms of workplace harassment
Workplace harassment exists in three forms: physical (groping, indecent touching), verbal (catcalling, offensive remarks, inappropriate comments about one’s body or sexual appeal), and writing. A recent study by The Conversation revealed that African women in the media are the prime targets of sexual harassment.
According to recent research conducted by Women in News, a media development programme by the World Association of News Publishers, one in two women experiences sexual harassment in the workplace, but only 30 per cent of the cases are reported.
The report noted that women on average experienced verbal harassment at 56 per cent, while 38 per cent experienced physical harassment.
The report further noted that although both men and women have reported sexual harassment in the workplace, women, on average, recorded four times higher than men. Additionally, with feeble policies, these incidents go unreported.
For the purpose of this report and due to the unavailability of data regarding workplace sexual harassment in Nigerian newsrooms, we distributed an online survey and directed it explicitly to female journalists and media personnel working in Nigeria.
Only 36 responses were received. From the feedback, seven individuals work with print media, 14 in broadcast, and 15 with online platforms. Only nine respondents, representing 25 per cent, said they had been sexually harassed, out of which only one case was reported.
Busola Ajibola, a human rights activist and deputy director of the journalism programme at the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID) believes that a general lack of awareness of gender differences in newsrooms makes it difficult for gender policies to be established and enforced.
Mrs Ajibola said; “The key thing to focus on is for us to drive home the point that our experiences by virtue of our genders are different, but that difference does not amount to inequality.”
She added that many young journalists have subjected themselves to certain expectations, including sexual exploitation, in order to attract ‘juicy beats’.
“Even top-ranking female journalists tip younger ones with their sources so that they can get exclusive reporting, without the young female journalists being aware that they are being set up or pimped.”
She noted that the fear of speaking out about the dangers associated with being a female journalist encourages sexual abusers to not be punished.
“So it goes back to the need for a lot of us to understand that our experiences are different and that the kind of danger that a man is exposed to, is not the same as the one for a woman journalist,” she added.
She suggested that newsrooms must move past the point of awareness of gender differences as this will help in designing tailor-made policies that would meet the demands of their work, irrespective of gender.
“I also think that newsrooms should invest in sexual harassment orientation. I’ve sat down with media managers and journalists to talk about examples of gender-based violence and a lot of them don’t know that something like slut-shaming counts as harassment,” Mrs Ajibola said.
Oluwaseyi Ayeni, an editor with PREMIUM TIMES, is worried that while the media does the job of reporting sexual harassment issues in other sectors, no one reports what happens in the newsrooms.
“The media industry must begin to understand that they have both male and female staff members and they all have a right to be heard; equal rights, actually. We must begin to highlight the benefits of gender equality and diversity,” Mrs Ayeni said.
She suggested that newsroom managers must be deliberate about training sessions that would highlight the benefits of a safe newsroom for both genders and how this can impact the quality of stories, staff productivity, and passion for the work.
“We need to have more female voices in the newsroom, even at the managerial level, which would lead to more female voices, in terms of decision making and all of that,” she added.
This story was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData initiative and the World Association for Christian Communication.