Editor of The Witness, Angela Quintal, has opened the door on a subject that is too seldom spoken about: the sexual harassment of female journalists by government communicators and high-ranking politicians.
In a speech delivered at a workshop for Department of Health public relations officers in KwaZulu-Natal last week that spoke to the relationship between government communicators and the media, Quintal said sexual harassment by politicians and communicators was something that had to be “guarded against”.
“I said I had concerns about politicians and government communicators and how some of them treat women journalists,” Quintal told TheMediaOnline. “Clearly that was the sexy angle of my speech that caught everyone’s attention!”
Quintal said she raised the subject at the PRO conference “because I do believe it’s a problem and is something that needs to be put out there – instead of sweeping it under the carpet or making out it doesn’t exist. Some of the male PROs were uncomfortable, but I think the point was made. The fact that it made it into a press release on the two-day workshop, must mean it found fertile ground.”
Quintal said her concerns originally stemmed from her days as a political journalist. “We raised this issue with the then-Speaker, Baleka Mbete, and the chief whips of all the parties in Parliament. This after one of the women reporters complained about a cabinet minister trying to grope her in his office,” Quintal said.
“We sent letters and if I recall, Mbete was quite good in terms of how she handled it. Interestingly, Parliament unveiled a new sexual harassment policy last week and I’m sure the problem continues to this day.”
More recently, however, Quintal said she had to deal with the issue when she was editor of The Mercury. “It became clear that some of the younger journalists were being hit on by some of the politicians and government communicators. I had quite a few women reporters, more so than here at The Witness, covering the beats where they would have to interact with politicians at all levels and government communicators,” Quintal explained.
“When I became aware that one of my reporters was being harassed, I spoke to her, her news editor and also ensured the assistant editor liaised with the communicator’s immediate head to put an end to it. There were denials on the communicator’s part and frankly it was a toing and froing, but ultimately the harassment stopped,” she said.
Quintal was determined to take it to the top, but to no avail. “My one regret was that despite repeated attempts to get hold of the MEC – the communicator’s big boss so to speak – we did not have much joy. I recall even going to a function to speak to her privately, (woman-to-woman sort of thing), but she didn’t pitch.”
The reporter concerned – who did not want to be named – received counselling that The Mercury organised as part of its Employee Assistance Programme, Quintal said.
“As you can imagine, given that the guy was central to covering her beat, the process was debilitating for her. However, unlike so many other young journalists, she was prepared to be ‘blacklisted’ by the communicator in question, rather than put up with the harassment.”
Quintal said the harassment of the journalist “sparked introspection” in the newsroom. “We had a brown bag lunch/workshop where we invited the Commission for Gender Equality to speak to us and many of the women journalists spoke out about their experiences. We also reviewed our sexual harassment policy.
“I also raised it with Sanef and a list of questions were included in a newsroom survey, so that we could see how widespread it is and then take it up with government. Sanef was waiting for funding, hence the delay.”
Quintal said she thought the problem is “particularly acute in KZN, where the patriarchal and chauvinistic system seems more pronounced”, to when she was working in Cape Town or Johannesburg.
“I wrote a letter of complaint to another political party in KZN, when one of the councillors was also harassing one of The Mercury journalists. We got an apology from the party, and a note saying he was only joking, but the point was made.”
Quintal said the SMSes, in this case, were “quite explicit” and one went so far threatening the journalist that he would “bewitch” her and “ensure that something happened to her boyfriend”!
“I think the process is called ukuthaktha. The journalist did not believe in this, so it wasn’t as though she felt intimidated, but it gives you an idea of what we were dealing with,” said Quintal.
Quintal said before she left The Mercury she raised it with a senior ANC women councillor, “in terms of how some politicians think it’s ‘open season’ on young women reporters.
“I meant to write a letter to every political party in council, but events ran away with me and next thing I was at The Witness.”