POSTED BY KISHALAY BHATTACHARJEE | AUGUST 26, 2013 IN newslaundry.com
I was just one traffic signal away from my office at New Delhi’s Barakhamba Road when the men squatted on the intersection and held up traffic for hours. I thought this was a result of the Mumbai gang rape. Perhaps Delhi-ites were in solidarity and also asking why the December gang rape case is still awaiting verdict?(Delhi had erupted into an unprecedented Occupy mode in December and January). But no, this country never ceases to surprise and disgust you; the protestors were rape accused AsaramBapu’s supporters who had taken over the capital’s main road. So while the nation(read media) again “woke” up to the “horrific” (this word now makes me throw up) news of a gang-rape in Mumbai, some hundreds of disciples of AsaramBapu were holding the roads to hostage as a sign of support of their guru who is accused of raping a minor.
In the past few days, slowly and steadily the discourse of the opinionated world of social media and general media has degenerated into a Delhi-Mumbai comparison. Descriptions of Mumbai as the“maximum” city and claiming how safe women are seem to be in denial of the reality of violence against women. A friend’s “status message” puts it nicely: “voxpops on Mumbai rape case across channels where the common strain of the lament is not about security of women in general across the country but about how Mumbai is slowly turning into a Delhi…”
As TV screens started raising the pitch (the tone and tenor is the same for falling rupee or missing coal files), I was wondering how one could report on sexual assault any differently from the banal or what is otherwise called “template coverage”. The site of crime was covered and people were asked to react and the police and politicians made their point. Activists and pseudo-activists made their appearance and predictably repeated the same words and thoughts.But what else can one say and write is the usual refrain?
Journalists are often the first responders to conflict and violence as well as the medium which informs the people of such incidents – so the responsibility that comes with this role should not be trivialised.To immediately seek reactions from politicians was a poor editorial decision. The Shiv Sena – for example – took off on their provocative “migrant” angle, whileParliament reporters in Delhi got busy cornering MurliDeora and others.
Whether Mumbai or Delhi or Ranchi or Kochi, women are always vulnerable because of gender discrimination, the patriarchal nature of our society and our system which includes the law and order machinery. The discussion on patriarchy,however, is fashionably debated and discussed though without a deeper understanding or explanation of gender discourse. At least following the recent Mumbai rape, this discourse has occupied some space in media vocabulary.
There are six sections under the Indian Penal Code which categorises crime against women (activists say rape is not a crime but violence) and five sections under Special and Local Laws(SLL) which are gender-specific. According to the only database – NCRB (which media parrots without second sourcing) – in 2012, two and half lakh cases of violence against women were registered with just 21% conviction. Domestic violence, female infanticide, trafficking, witch-hunting, acid attack, honour/dishonour killing are all forms of violence against women. Three women were killed in Assam’s Kokrajhar last week allegedly because of the practice of witch-hunting which has more to do with land-grabbing than superstition. Only last week, Dr NarendraDabholkar was shot dead in Pune and one of his campaigns had to do with fighting witch hunting and taking on organisations who opposed women from entering temples. This is how I would contextualise the situation of women as far as safety and violence are concerned.
There are no policies or guidelines laid out by most media organisations of how to cover such violence. The reporter on live television is free to speak,often without scrutiny. Newspapers add irrelevant and sensitive details which get recorded in virtual space. In one national newspaper, the allegation against Asaram Bapu was written with contradiction. It quoted the police officer as saying that there is a complaint, but he would rather not give away the sequence of events till the investigation is completed. In the next paragraph, the reporter goes ahead and gives us the entire sequence blow-by-blow. What the reporter could have observed (if he were to visit the police rather than gather news over phone) is that the complainant(the minor girl) was virtually detained in Kamala Market police station(near New Delhi Railway Station) from afternoon till midnight and the police refused to even provide mandatory trauma counselling to her.
Why do we (or why are we instructed to) hold back the identity or victims/survivors in such cases? Apart from the legal provision of respecting the complainant’s privacy,anonymity also helps us comprehend what it means for a nameless citizen in India. That is why it is important not to give away the profile of the girl or her profession.
Why is there a voyeuristic pleasure in identifying and profiling the “victim”? By labelling her as a “victim” we have already given her a new identity and then to reconstruct the crime by adding details of who she was accompanied by only feeds to our desire to probe. The fact that everybody without thinking mentioned that she was with a “male” colleague is a precondition we succumb to; rape traditionally was not necessarily seen as a woman’s dignity being assaulted but denting the honour of the man meant to protect her or one who “owns her”. By adding the companion’s gender, two ideas are perpetrated. One in which there is an insinuation that she was with a “male” (visiting an abandoned factory in this case) at 6:30 pm (one channel made sure they mentioned that this is a site which you wouldn’t visit even during the day). Two, it conveys the gravity that despite being accompanied by a“male” (protector) she was assaulted. This is a subtext to the stereotype that women need men to protect them from other men. While it is important to report factually it is also important to start a debate on whether or not to restrict our information to say just a “colleague” or prefix “male” to it. Information is not supposed to be brought into public domain unless there is a public interest that outweighs the expectation of privacy. There should be utmost effort at avoiding “jigsaw identification” – for example in this case, “photo journalist” of an “English publication”, an “intern” with a “male colleague”are indicators that can help identify the persons involved in the assault. In such cases, the norm should be to stick to just the basic information particularly if the case is still in the preliminary stage. I am aware of the pressure on reporters to gather as much information and divulge even more than they gather. If a second channel has already given out the information, the pressure mounts but the thumb rule is to stick to your own rule.
(As I write this, I am told someone is reporting from the house of the girl assaulted. If one has reached the others too shall follow)
The sanctimonious studio discussions and editorials on rape either scream “hang the accused” or highlights a generic patronising and protective attitude. I am yet to take away anything from these debates to show us the way forward. The counterpoint, however, is what else does one say and write? Have we pushed our point of police-people ratio or why the old beat system was not reintroduced for effective policing? Why abandoned space in our towns and cities has been taken over unchecked by criminals? Why we don’t have shelter homes and when we do, why are most run as abuse homes? Have we asked how many anti-trafficking units actually work in this country even after crores of rupees have been sanctioned to make them operational? Are we even aware or do we care about how many women and children go missing every day?
Semantics and journalism have a cosy relationship and when the reportage is of a sensitive nature it becomes imperative to not perpetrate stereotypes. There is a new debate for example that prefers to replace the usage “violence against women” with “male violence against women”. Every word and terminology we so casually use has implications and the increasing dependence on words and phrases given to us by our political class and security establishment or even the judiciary is hardly ever weighed by our journalistic and ethical measures. Across the world people are debating how to report rape and violence and it has been found that a large percentage of such stories tend to blame the victim by adding unnecessary, superfluous details peppering the reports. Is there a necessity then about questioning how media in India report rape and other sexual abuse? I think there is a good case here.