physical Harassment aganist Maheen Usmani at Dunya TV

 physical Harassment aganist Maheen Usmani at Dunya TV

By Sabahat Ghazal A senior anchorperson at Dunya TV News is being pressured to keep silent about being physical  harassed by the company’s managing director. After the news director and chief executive officer (CEO) of the company were informed the journalist started to experience serious professional setbacks, and though internal investigation committees were set up (after her resignation), these appear to have been intentionally delayed.

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maheen usmani scandal

There are concerns that the power of the media house explains the lack of action by civil and political groups, including the National Press Club, in the case so far. The victim currently faces two defamation suits. The case is timely, since a proposal to
increase the punishment for sexual harassment in the workplace is
pending in Parliament.

Ms Maheen Usmani was a senior anchorperson at Dunya TV News, a private television channel in Islamabad. On 11 May 2009 she received two late-night calls from the channel’s managing director, Mr. Yusuf Baig Mirza. He allegedly asked Ms. Usmani to confirm her cell number and made inappropriate comments on her appearance, before offering her certain favours and reimbursements if she were to keep in touch with him on his personal number. According to the victim’s later letter to the Director of Human Resources of Dunya News after the event, Mirza’s speech was ’suggestive’ and loaded with innuendoes.

Usmani reported the matter to the Director of News (DN), who assured her that it would not happen again and guaranteed an apology from Mirza. However the DN left his job soon afterward and this never happened. The CEO, Mr. Mian Amer Mahmood (former Nazim or Mayor of Lahore city) was also told about the incident, yet did nothing.

Instead Usmani found herself increasingly marginalised in the studio;
Mirza withheld a special report she prepared, removed her from her
lead production role in a popular weekly program and intervened to
prevent the program’s broadcast on several occasions.

Usmani tendered her resignation on 15 June citing the ‘continued
harassment, coercion and highly unethical conduct of the top
management of Dunya News’.

The management quickly formed a Harassment and Gender Equality
Committee to investigate her complaint, yet it was made mostly of
junior staff who reported to Mirza. The Director of Current Affairs (Ms. Nasim Zehra) and head of the committee tried unsuccessfully to get colleagues to sign a petition, barring Usmani from the office for ‘hurt(ing) the sentiments of the Dunya team’. The committee has since made little progress.

Maheen Usmani Letter

A female correspondent of Dunya News, Maheen Usmani has recently resigned on protest of Sexual Harassment by Managing Director Yousuf Baig Mirza. Attached is her resignation letter address to the HR department.

Dear Director Human Resources,

It was with great expectations and high hopes that I became part of Dunya’s launch team in November 2008, and I took great pride in being part of Dunya ‘family’ as it climbed the ladder of success and gave tough competition to leading channels. Seven months later, it is with great regret that I have decided to tender my resignation as the circumstances have forced me to leave this organization due to the continued harassment, coercion and highly unethical conduct of the top management of Dunya News.

Now it has become unbearable to work here as the situation has increasingly turned out to be insecure, rather punishing, for professional female journalists who want to work, as well as, protect their self-respect. I have waited with patience since May 11, 2009 that the Managing Director of Dunya News, Yousaf Beg Mirza, would stop abusing his official position and put an end to his ugly tactics of harassing a senior female journalist working here. I, however, was totally disappointed with this organization when I realized that Mr Mirza’s employer, CEO and the owner of this news channel, is not interested in protecting the female employees from the advances of the MD but is in connivance with him.

It was shocking to know that Mr Mirza is being shielded by the CEO of the organization, Mian Amer Mahmood, who was told about Mr Mirza’s indecent advances but he did not stop the MD from abusing his authority. Once it was brought to his notice, Mr Mahmood had given the assurances that no such harassment would take place but not only that this harassment continued, the CEO instead of empowering the Director News or respective Bureau Chiefs, gave the MD more powers to interact directly with the reporters who already felt harassed by him.

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This all started on May 11th, 2009 at 10:01 p.m., when I received a call from one of the staff members of the Managing Director, Yousaf Beg Mirza, aka YBM, to confirm my cell number. This was followed by another call at 10:07 p.m., made by the MD. During that phone call, which continued for few minutes, his suggestive talk was loathed with innuendoes, and offers as he counted the expected benefits that a less-important, bureau-reporter can get in return for keeping a direct “contact” with the Managing Director on his “personal number.”

I was shocked to hear the “friendly” MD, who had been denying the contractual rights of male staff members all these months despite repeated reminders, going out of his way to oblige a female staff member. I have worked with country’s best media organizations during my career and never faced such an ugly situation.

Finding the whole monologue, which continued for few minutes, detestable, I immediately brought the matter to the notice of Director News because he was the one who had hired us assuring that our rights will be protected in this organization, which had developed an unsavory standing in the media industry and we also had our reservations about the reputation of the MD before joining it.

I had decided to resign then but the DN asked me to withhold it and let him talk to the MD first. The DN took up this issue with the MD who apologized with the DN over this incident and said he would seek apology from me as well in the presence of the DN.

The DN assured me that such an incident would not happen again and the MD would make an apology to me as well.

However, with the sudden departure of the DN, the situation took the worst turn and the MD found an opportunity to revenge, and hence re-launched his harassment campaign. This was going to happen despite CEO, Mian Amer Mahmood’s, assurances and promises to the outgoing DN that no member of his team would either be thrown out or be harassed by the MD.

Since the CEO was informed of MD’s harassing tactics, Mr Mahmood repeatedly reassured the former DN that no female employee would be harassed by YBM. “Humaray employees hamaray bachon ki tarah hain. Hum un ko protect kartain hain,” were the words which the former DN quoted me as the CEO had told him. Hearing these lofty words, I took a sigh of relief that my life and respect would be protected in this organization but what I forgot was that I was not their own daughter.

What they forgot was that despite their discriminatory tactics, before Allah all daughters are equal. Ayat 195 of Sura Aal-Imran says: “I never let go waste the labor of anyone that works among you, whether male or female, for in my sight all of you are alike.”

Instead of reining in the MD, the CEO gave him an open hand and the MD immediately embarked on a campaign to place obstacles in my path. He insisted on personally scrutinizing a special assignment report of mine in Islamabad instead of previewing it in Lahore. After previewing the report, and throwing his weight around in the Islamabad office, he ordered to withhold it on frivolous grounds.

I did not comply, because the changes were devoid of logic and reason. I had done extensive research for my project and the MD had been unaware of the historical context of Sri Lankan conflict which was not surprising since he is not a journalist, and reasons of his survival in Pakistani media, particularly during former military dictator Musharraf’s era, were other than professional. The bottom line is that the package has been dumped in Lahore, because of the MD’s intransigence and my refusal to “contact” him.

I have been associated for a long time with ‘Meri Dharti Meri Dunya,’ a weekly landmark program of Dunya, which has proved its popularity by garnering commercials, and a wide viewership. On the rating chart the program has been going from strength to strength and at times it registered a much higher rating than any other Current Affairs program of Dunya News and that too without any extra investment of the company.

Due to this huge success, the program got commercials and sponsorship of multinational companies which had also asked for increase in the frequency of the program and to be made it twice-weekly.

Unfortunately, my association with ‘Meri Dharti Meri Dunyai’ has proved to be its death knell, because the MD has set out to destroy this program to teach me a lesson. What he forgot, however, is that he was trying to mess with a credible senior journalist and not one of those female opportunists, who are masquerading as journalists and are being heavily promoted for the last few days on Dunya News.

On 18th May, 2009 I was symbolically put in charge of the program’s production in Islamabad just to streamline the links, their quality and better coordination with the head office. Consequently, we had tried to introduce some innovation in the production and script which got us excellent feedback. However, on 1st June, 2009 the MD forced all concerned working under him to issue another notification and remove me as Production Incharge. But no reason was given for the abrupt and irrational change.

In the next few days, Meri Dharti Meri Dunya’s repeat slot was repeatedly taken away and given to Current Affairs programs which have their own fixed slots as well. On June 1st, Meri Dharti Meri Dunya’s producers were suddenly told at 5:30 p.m., by the Transmission Incharge that the program would not be aired that day at its scheduled and publicized time slot of 7:05 p.m., and it was being replaced by a ‘documentary’. When the producer protested at the sudden axing of the program, he was told that the orders had come directly from the CEO. When the ‘documentary’ aired, we were shocked to see the program ‘One 2 One’ which has its own time slot. Again no reason was given for this unexpected change in schedule.

We were informed that this episode of Meri Dharti Meri Dunya would air next Monday. Two days later, on Wednesday, June 3rd, the Transmission Incharge informed Meri Dharti Meri Dunya’s producers at 6:30 p.m., that the program would be going on air in 30 minutes at 7:00 p.m., instead of the scheduled sports program. The producers protested at this arbitrary and unfair treatment being meted out to Meri Dharti Meri Dunya once again, but were told that the MD had issued the orders.

This was being done despite the fact that a day earlier an announcement was made that President Zardari, Richard Holbrooke and Shah Mahmood Qureshi would address a press conference which would go live at the same time.

Having no choice in the matter, the puzzled producers readied the program and it went on air at 7:05 p.m. Barely 15 minutes later, the program was trashed to live broadcast the scheduled press conference. Instead of spoiling their sports program or airing a 10 minutes bulletin as a filler as is the norm, Meri Dharti Meri Dunya was selected as the sacrificial goat once again.

On 5th June, the CEO, Mian Amer Mahmood, held a meeting with the Islamabad Bureau and when his attention was drawn to the unfair and discriminatory treatment being meted out to Dunya News’ most popular program he was unable to provide any justification for such unprofessional behavior. He did concede that Meri Dharti Meri Dunya had extremely good ratings, and said that the program’s timing was being changed ‘to improve its production value.’

Is the CEO not aware that such distortion of the program has a negative impact on the channel’s credibility, not to mention its marketing value? Despite the Islamabad meeting of June 5th chaired by the CEO, nothing improved for Meri Dharti Meri Dunya and it continued to suffer the wrath of the top management.

On June 10th, the most popular program of Dunya News was once again used as a filler when it was aired at 4:05 a.m. This time it was used to fill Ayla Malik’s program’s repeat slot as the management preferred to withhold her show due to the bomb blast in PC Peshawar earlier in the night of June 9. It was surprising as Meri Dharti Meri Dunya was not repeated during its scheduled time-slot on June 9.

Same day on June 10th, Meri Dharti Meri Dunya was chopped to 20/25 minutes duration and was once again aired, without any prior announcement, at 2:20 p.m.—again as a filler in place of Ms Malik’s show. Feeling disturbed over the situation, I separated myself from the program and told the producers last week that I will not be available for the next episode.

My colleagues are perplexed and keep asking me why a successful program is being systematically destroyed to the detriment of the channel. I owe them the truth and they must know why it is happening.

The reason is self evident—a personal vendetta of the MD against me for not “contacting” him, and which is being aided and abetted by the CEO. The very same CEO, who starts every meeting with a recitation from the Holy Quran and who keeps instructing us to speak the truth and not be corrupt, has given the MD his blessings and sanction to harass a female employee just because she won’t compromise on her principles.

I advise the CEO to refer to Ayat 124 of Sura Al-Nisa: “And those who do good deeds, whether men or women, provided that they are believers, will enter into paradise and they will not be deprived in the least of their rightful rewards.”

When I was hesitant to face an elderly employee at Dunya News who had spoken to me in a vulgar manner a few months ago, Director Current Affairs, Nasim Zehra, had advised me to be brave and “look him in the eye.” Because, Ms Zehra said, he was the one who had stepped out of line. She asked why female employees were so reluctant to speak out and adhered to a conspiracy of silence when in fact there should be a policy of zero tolerance against such creeps. She said that “our” silence encouraged such sleazy elements to continue their sexual harassment.

Her advice made sense to me then and now it gives me the motivation and courage to look the senior management in the eye and ask them: Does this policy of zero tolerance not apply to them?

Journalists fight for the rights of others, but how can we do that when our own rights are not protected and are trampled upon at will by sleazy characters? As a professional journalist, I am shocked at the unethical conduct of these people and their ability to stoop so low. How can they preach to viewers and their employees to speak the truth and behave according to the Quran and Sunnah when they themselves are mired in dubious practices and sleazy behavior in clear violation of the Quranic injunctions?

To them I can only quote the punch line of a promo being aired by Dunya News: “Khuda Sey Daro.” What you sow for others’ daughters, you will reap yourself one day.

During the last few days, I have been thinking a lot on this issue and have ultimately decided not to fall prey to this conspiracy of silence and should take a public stand to expose such shady individuals plaguing the media. This will also put Nasim Zehra’s words to test. I will wait for her to stand up in this cause with me and support a fellow female journalist in exposing such elements and help protect the collective respect of working women.

Under the influence of his desire and powerful position, the MD completely ignored the fact that such an insidious campaign would only destroy the image of the organization, and it would force those seasoned journalists to leave who value their noble professional ethics much more than anything else.

In an effort to improve the legislation to protect women at work places and create awareness about malpractices in Pakistan’s media industry, I am forwarding this resignation to few powerful women of Pakistan such as Speaker National Assembly Dr Fehmida Mirza, former Minister of Information Sherry Rehman, President’s Adviser/spokesperson Farahnaz Isphani, Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, national, international media and rights organizations Chairman PEMRA Mushtaque Malik,, Minister for Information Qamruzzaman Kaira, Secretary Information Ashfaque Gondal, and other relevant civil and military institutions dealing with the media.

I am also reporting this to Lord Khalid Hameed, Member House of Lords, British Parliament, Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, Member House of Commons, British Parliament, Asma Jehangir, Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission for Human Rights, Renate Schroeder, Director International Federation of Journalists, Brussels, and I. A. Rehman, Chairman Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

I would like to express my appreciation for my colleagues, the Assignment Desk, the cameramen, and the NLEs who I have had the privilege of working with and knowing during my association with Dunya News. I will miss all of you and our camaraderie, but I would rather be jobless than to continue working for a channel headed by such morally corrupt media barons who treat women in such a cheap manner which is repugnant for any self respecting female. It’s time to root out such people, because they give the media a bad name due to their disgusting and lewd behavior.

Maheen Usmani
Correspondent
Dunya News
Islamabad