There was only one condition set for Belinda*, a TV journalist in Cameroon, to move from presenting news briefs to prime time news anchoring which would ultimately mean better career prospects: Give in to the sexual demands of her boss. She refused, and that marked the end of her 12-year stint in the newsroom where she had practised since 2009.
“Trying to avoid harassment from the person who was in charge of assignments had become increasingly difficult,” she told AWiM News, adding that she found it difficult to report to work every morning.
Sadly, Belinda’s case is not unique. Catherine*, another journalist in Cameroon, is thinking of calling it quits after 19 years in the newsroom. She told AWiM News that she has braved countless sexual advances from colleagues and superiors, and watched in dismay as she was bypassed for promotions and salary raises for refusing to give in to their demands.
“It’s disappointing because I know my potential. I have worked insanely hard, but every year of my career has been a battle against sexual advances from my superiors. It’s exhausting,” said the journalist, who is planning to quit and try her luck in consultancy.
Anne*, another broadcast reporter, was invited by her boss to his office, under the guise of proofreading her script. To her shock, he shut the door and groped her breasts. She slapped him. He apologised, but not before shifting blame. He told her that she was “too attractive, too irresistible” then demoted her to a clerical position.
Media’s open secret
Sexual harassment is media’s open secret; one that journalists resign themselves to as part of the challenges of the job. Women who refuse to give in to demands for sex either persevere in the toxic environment or leave the newsroom altogether.
Sylvia* who encountered sexual harassment in her first year in the newsroom, left after her boss groped her buttocks in the lift. She scolded him, but the harassment didn’t stop. In the evening when Sylvia was performing her duties as a continuity announcer with two male colleagues, she had to deal with sexually explicit jokes from her boss.
“I wanted to quit, but was I to quit and starve in a country where finding a job is akin to looking for a drop of water in the desert?”
Sylvia did quit, and after months out of work, found a job in Cameroon’s public service as a communications assistant.
“I miss sports reporting, but it holds memories of the most unsafe days of my life. I had wanted to become a force to reckon with in sports journalism, but I am learning to love this job I pursued out of despair,” she said.
I had wanted to become a force to reckon with in sports journalism, but sports reporting holds memories of the most unsafe days of my life.
High attrition rates
The high attrition rates of women from Cameroonian newsrooms that can partly be attributed to sexual harassment, prompted journalist and gender rights advocate Tchonko Becky Bissong to look into the scope of sexual harassment in the local media landscape. In 2019, Bissong surveyed 56 female journalists, and 42 said they had experienced sexual harassment at work.
The severity of sexual harassment in Cameroon gave way to a social media campaign dubbed #StopSexualHarassment237, which was started by Comfort Mussa, a prominent gender equality advocate, in 2018 . She has been vocal about her first encounter with a potential recruiter whose invitation to a hotel room she turned down. On the next job, her male colleague forcefully attempted to kiss her in studio while the technical team watched and laughed.
Mussa, who told IJNET that she was inspired by the #MeToo campaign in the United States, wanted to stamp out sexual harassment and intimidation in the media.
The campaign sparked conversation on social media by calling out respected male journalists and abusive journalism lecturers, who were perpetrating sexual harassment against women in media. Three years later, the headlines have vanished and the hashtags are few and far between. However, while abusers are neither named nor punished, disturbing stories of harassment, rape and unjust layoffs pop up regularly. Nothing much has changed.
Lack of policies
Bissong’s unpublished survey revealed that sexual harassment thrives in newsrooms because media enterprises lack policies to address the scourge. Moreover, a misogynistic culture, women’s limited understanding of rape culture, and complacency in addressing it, hinders meritocracy and gender parity in newsrooms. The vice thrives in silence because victims hardly come forward and when they do, the burden of proof remains with them.
“The most painful part was that I won the battle against the man who sexually harassed me, but lost it with women who should have stood up for me. Women in decision-making positions at the station took his side and sidelined me because I slapped my boss,” Anne told AWiM News.
In this environment, holding perpetrators to account is an uphill task. However, people like Bissong and programmes like Women in News are working to address it.
“I am working on a toolkit that I hope will be implemented in the Cameroon media landscape. It will go a long way to check the scourge by easing reporting of sexual harassment by all staff, systematically punishing abusers, and making newsrooms safer and conducive for current and future media women,” said Bissong.
*Names have been changed