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Gender Dalit Bahujan Adivasi

Uncovering Rape

Ammu Joseph 21 Jan 2016



“When a lovestruck 14-year-old girl decided to run away from home to meet her boyfriend, she had no inkling of the horror she was in for.”  That was the opening sentence of a news report about the repeated rape of the teenager by two Indian Army jawans on a train to Amritsar in December 2015.

“It all started with Facebook - initially by sending friend requests to each other, followed by messages and then late night chats,” the story continued. “For the minor girl, that was perhaps enough to fall in love with a boy who actually hailed from Punjab's Ludhiana district.”

Once again a media report on rape diminished the seriousness of the crime by highlighting extraneous details about the young survivor instead of focusing on the most relevant information: in this case, the sexual assault of a minor girl by two soldiers.  As a letter to the editor from the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) asked, “How does the girl being lovestruck connect with the rape at all? How does it matter where she met her boyfriend –  on Facebook or elsewhere – or even that she had one?” 

The fact that the multiple violent attacks on the girl amounted to statutory rape under the law was evidently missed in the process, as was the fact that the crime was all the more heinous because the perpetrators belonged to the armed forces, which presumably exist to protect citizens of the country, not harm them.

The report was accompanied by a lurid illustration which, as the NWMI letter pointed out, contributed to the sensational nature of the story as told. 

It is difficult to avoid a feeling of déjà vu every time such flawed reports on rape surface.  Issues relating to media coverage of sexual assault have been discussed and debated for decades, at least from the campaign against rape sparked off in the early 1980s by the Supreme Court judgment in what has come to be known as the Mathura rape case onwards. 

Media coverage of rape and the campaign against it was among the five topics included in the 1994 book, “Whose News?  The Media and Women’s Issues.” When Kalpana Sharma and I revisited media coverage of sexual violence in India for the second edition of the book in the mid-2000s, we found that rape was back on the media agenda – a quarter of a century after it had become a legitimate subject for media attention – thanks to a number of high-profile cases in the political and commercial capitals of the country, Delhi and Mumbai.  Our review revealed that media coverage of rape in the new millennium was “something of a mixed bag, ranging from the serious, concerned and gender-sensitive through glib, superficial and celebrity-oriented to sensational, irresponsible and intrusive.”  

That assessment is still more or less applicable today, a decade later, although heightened competition in the burgeoning news media space has added new dimensions to the coverage.  Privately-owned Indian television news channels – with their characteristic high-pitched reporting and confrontational panel discussions that invariably generate more heat than light – now play a dominant role in setting the public agenda.  This has had an impact on the style and substance of news coverage in large sections of the print media as well. 

Critiques of media coverage of sexual violence in general and rape in particular tend to focus primarily on sins of commission.  While some of these – such as sensationalism and prurience – are professionally indefensible, others are more complicated:  the amount and type of detail to be included in news reports, for example. 

Take the question of the right to privacy.  The Indian Penal Code, as well as the limited ethical guidelines issued by the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters’ Association, stress the need to protect the privacy of victims and survivors of sexual violence.  Death does not automatically release the media from this obligation:  according to the law, “the name or any matter which may make known the identity of the victim” can be published only if the next of kin authorises it in writing. 

In the case of a young woman who went missing near Chennai one mid-February night in 2014, her name, age, place of origin and employer were made public the day her body was finally discovered over a week later.  Of the reports I scanned, only The Hindu persisted in referring to her as an employee of Tata Consultancy Services, providing no further details.  In contrast, some media reports even included her photograph with no attempt at morphing.

Most media outlets chose to report that the woman was raped before the results of forensic analysis, which alone could establish the nature of the crime, were available – presumably going by information provided by the police about confessions by the first two men arrested.  Again, The Hindu was an exception.  Some reports included several details about the likely sequence of events before, during and after the crime, obviously relying purely on police sources yet again. 

Take the question of the right to privacy.  The Indian Penal Code, as well as the limited ethical guidelines issued by the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters’ Association, stress the need to protect the privacy of victims and survivors of sexual violence.  Death does not automatically release the media from this obligation:  according to the law, “the name or any matter which may make known the identity of the victim” can be published only if the next of kin authorises it in writing.

Besides the over-arching journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness and independence, the key precept that should inform decisions about necessary and unwarranted details is, surely, the interest of justice.  Many details now routinely included in news reports on rape cases serve no constructive purpose and may, in fact, have negative consequences. The references to a teenaged survivor being “lovestruck,” having met her boyfriend on Facebook, and so on, in the report described above represent a case in point.

The controversy over when a legitimate and ethical, if aggressive, pursuit of truth in the interest of justice turns into an illegitimate, unprincipled trial by media that can result in miscarriage of justice raises troublesome questions which call for serious reflection even if there are no easy answers.  The tragic death of social activist Khurshid Anwar, who committed suicide in December 2013 following charges of rape – possibly pushed to the edge by a television programme – underlines the grave consequences that thoughtless or irresponsible journalism, however well-intentioned, can lead to. 

The good news is that there is growing debate among journalists themselves on issues concerning media coverage of sexual violence in general, and rape in particular.  Such welcome introspection has led to several attempts – by journalists or with their involvement – to evolve practical dos and don’ts that recognise the realities of reporting news in an ever more competitive media environment, but seek to promote ethical practice despite the undeniable, disagreeable pressures that most journalists, especially reporters, have to contend with.

However, the media’s equally critical sins of omission have yet to receive the attention they demand if coverage of sexual assault, including rape, is to serve its logical purpose:  justice in general, gender justice in particular and, ultimately, a necessary decline in the prevalence of such violence.

A collaborative academic study focussing on “sexual violence journalism” in four leading English language publications before and after December 2012 concluded that, although this section of the press has made “small but important progress with respect to reporting on gender justice,” the news media need to move beyond “the incident and crime cycle,” and away from the sensational aspects of such crimes, to progress towards “gender justice sensitive reporting.”

What would this involve?  To begin with, an acknowledgement – especially by decision-makers in the media – that coverage of gender-related events and issues, including sexual violence, is serious business.  Those reporting and commenting on the subject need to acquaint themselves with the complexities of the subject, the history of efforts to deal with these issues, and the debates and actions that have taken place in the past (in India from at least 1980 onwards).

In the wake of the December 2012 gang-rape, for example, some sections of the media spearheaded a vociferous crusade calling for capital punishment in cases of sexual assault. There is little doubt that the relentless, emotive, campaign-style coverage and impassioned, impatient television debates contributed to the apparent manufacture of consent among vocal sections of the media-consuming public about the desirability of the death penalty for rape, if only in high-profile cases.  Little attention was paid to the fact that women’s organisations with long experience in tackling gender violence, as well as other groups and individuals committed to human rights, oppose the death penalty on the ground that it is not only wrong in principle but also unlikely to work in practice, especially in terms of reducing the incidence of sexual assault or increasing the conviction rate or both. 

The excessive and blinkered focus on retributive justice also obscures genuine hurdles in the path of justice of any kind:  prejudice, ignorance, negligence, incompetence and worse within the investigative, legal and judicial systems. The media would serve the cause of justice better if they spent time and energy on creatively exposing these impediments instead of chasing elusive “exclusives” that are often based on unconfirmed (often incorrect), inconsequential or salacious trivia that shed no light on the matter and often violate the rights of the human beings involved. 

Data on sexual crimes represent another area crying out for critical attention.  Apart from the fact that undiscerning use of statistics is often misleading, it appears that National Crime Records Bureau data themselves may be unintentionally deceptive, going by a report in The Hindu in October 2013 flagging a statistical flaw that could mean that even the December 2012 gang rape would not be counted in NCRB data on rape. Surprisingly, this sensational revelation, which was not denied, caused barely a ripple in the media.

Sometimes startling statistics are blandly presented when further examination is clearly required.  For example, according to data attributed to the Delhi police a couple of years ago, 95 per cent of the accused in rape cases were less than 25 years old.  If this was indeed true it obviously has major implications for efforts to deal with the problem of sexual violence. If it was not, why was such incredible data released by the police?  Or was police information misreported by the media? 

The law is another area that requires more informed reporting.  The new amendments to the law relating to rape, greeted with glee by much of the media in early 2013, were later widely criticised in the context of the charges filed against Tarun Tejpal later that year.  Both the initial reaction and the subsequent reassessment would have been more instructive and convincing if lawyers and activists with the requisite knowledge and experience had been consulted.

And then, most importantly, there is the social, cultural, economic and political context in which the apparent proliferation of sexual crimes is taking place.  It is significant that the most serious efforts to delve into the lives of the perpetrators of the December 2012 gang rape, exploring what could possibly have led them to commit such a brutally violent crime, appeared in two international newspapers.

Articles situating rape within the larger context of gender inequality and patriarchal attitudes towards women, on the one hand, and women’s growing consciousness, confidence and mobility, on the other, have appeared in the opinion and features sections of the print media; so have explorations of the skewed concepts of masculinity that underlie such crimes. However, such essential perspectives (often put forward by professionals from outside the media world), which could promote better understanding of such violence, its causes and consequences, and what needs to be done to tackle the scourge, have not yet permeated sufficiently into regular media practice. 

There is clearly an urgent need to step up and institutionalise ongoing efforts to improve media coverage of sexual violence. In some parts of the world media professionals have sought sensitivity training from survivors of crime and those helping them to secure justice in order to improve the accuracy of their coverage and minimise the trauma it can cause.  Such initiatives could make all the difference provided media institutions are willing to do things differently in order to make a difference. 

(The writer is a journalist and author based in Bangalore)
 
References (Some Resources):
  1. ‘When Survivors Become Victims’ by Sameera Khan in ‘Missing Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters,’  Kalpana Sharma (ed.), Zubaan Books, 2010
  2. The Hoot (www.thehoot.org):  a media watch website – http://www.thehoot.org/resources/reporting-rape
  3. Press Council of India:  Norms of Journalistic Conduct (http://presscouncil.nic.in/NORMS-2010.pdf)
  4. News Broadcasters’ Association: Guidelines on Reportage of Cases of Sexual Assault (issued http://www.nbanewdelhi.com/images/uploadfile/43_PRESS%20RELEASE%207-1-13.pdf)
  5. Report Responsibly (http://report-responsibly-india.tumblr.com):  a platform to host conversation and generate debate about responsible reporting on sexual assault in India.
  6. The Blue Pencil (pencilblue.wordpress.com): a media watch project to monitor reporting on gender violence.
  7. Network of Women in Media, India:  http://www.nwmindia.org (e.g., http://nwmindia.org/about-us/statements/nwmi-statement-on-insensitive-media-coverage-of-gang-rape-victim-in-west-bengal-june-14-2013, http://nwmindia.org/about-us/statements/nwmi-statement-at-mumbai-february-2013-the-media-must-be-part-of-the-solution-not-the-problem, http://www.nwmindia.org/national/identifying-survivors-of-sexual-assault-who-decides)

Uncovering Rape




“When a lovestruck 14-year-old girl decided to run away from home to meet her boyfriend, she had no inkling of the horror she was in for.”  That was the opening sentence of a news report about the repeated rape of the teenager by two Indian Army jawans on a train to Amritsar in December 2015.

“It all started with Facebook - initially by sending friend requests to each other, followed by messages and then late night chats,” the story continued. “For the minor girl, that was perhaps enough to fall in love with a boy who actually hailed from Punjab's Ludhiana district.”

Once again a media report on rape diminished the seriousness of the crime by highlighting extraneous details about the young survivor instead of focusing on the most relevant information: in this case, the sexual assault of a minor girl by two soldiers.  As a letter to the editor from the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) asked, “How does the girl being lovestruck connect with the rape at all? How does it matter where she met her boyfriend –  on Facebook or elsewhere – or even that she had one?” 

The fact that the multiple violent attacks on the girl amounted to statutory rape under the law was evidently missed in the process, as was the fact that the crime was all the more heinous because the perpetrators belonged to the armed forces, which presumably exist to protect citizens of the country, not harm them.

The report was accompanied by a lurid illustration which, as the NWMI letter pointed out, contributed to the sensational nature of the story as told. 

It is difficult to avoid a feeling of déjà vu every time such flawed reports on rape surface.  Issues relating to media coverage of sexual assault have been discussed and debated for decades, at least from the campaign against rape sparked off in the early 1980s by the Supreme Court judgment in what has come to be known as the Mathura rape case onwards. 

Media coverage of rape and the campaign against it was among the five topics included in the 1994 book, “Whose News?  The Media and Women’s Issues.” When Kalpana Sharma and I revisited media coverage of sexual violence in India for the second edition of the book in the mid-2000s, we found that rape was back on the media agenda – a quarter of a century after it had become a legitimate subject for media attention – thanks to a number of high-profile cases in the political and commercial capitals of the country, Delhi and Mumbai.  Our review revealed that media coverage of rape in the new millennium was “something of a mixed bag, ranging from the serious, concerned and gender-sensitive through glib, superficial and celebrity-oriented to sensational, irresponsible and intrusive.”  

That assessment is still more or less applicable today, a decade later, although heightened competition in the burgeoning news media space has added new dimensions to the coverage.  Privately-owned Indian television news channels – with their characteristic high-pitched reporting and confrontational panel discussions that invariably generate more heat than light – now play a dominant role in setting the public agenda.  This has had an impact on the style and substance of news coverage in large sections of the print media as well. 

Critiques of media coverage of sexual violence in general and rape in particular tend to focus primarily on sins of commission.  While some of these – such as sensationalism and prurience – are professionally indefensible, others are more complicated:  the amount and type of detail to be included in news reports, for example. 

Take the question of the right to privacy.  The Indian Penal Code, as well as the limited ethical guidelines issued by the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters’ Association, stress the need to protect the privacy of victims and survivors of sexual violence.  Death does not automatically release the media from this obligation:  according to the law, “the name or any matter which may make known the identity of the victim” can be published only if the next of kin authorises it in writing. 

In the case of a young woman who went missing near Chennai one mid-February night in 2014, her name, age, place of origin and employer were made public the day her body was finally discovered over a week later.  Of the reports I scanned, only The Hindu persisted in referring to her as an employee of Tata Consultancy Services, providing no further details.  In contrast, some media reports even included her photograph with no attempt at morphing.

Most media outlets chose to report that the woman was raped before the results of forensic analysis, which alone could establish the nature of the crime, were available – presumably going by information provided by the police about confessions by the first two men arrested.  Again, The Hindu was an exception.  Some reports included several details about the likely sequence of events before, during and after the crime, obviously relying purely on police sources yet again. 

Take the question of the right to privacy.  The Indian Penal Code, as well as the limited ethical guidelines issued by the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters’ Association, stress the need to protect the privacy of victims and survivors of sexual violence.  Death does not automatically release the media from this obligation:  according to the law, “the name or any matter which may make known the identity of the victim” can be published only if the next of kin authorises it in writing.

Besides the over-arching journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness and independence, the key precept that should inform decisions about necessary and unwarranted details is, surely, the interest of justice.  Many details now routinely included in news reports on rape cases serve no constructive purpose and may, in fact, have negative consequences. The references to a teenaged survivor being “lovestruck,” having met her boyfriend on Facebook, and so on, in the report described above represent a case in point.

The controversy over when a legitimate and ethical, if aggressive, pursuit of truth in the interest of justice turns into an illegitimate, unprincipled trial by media that can result in miscarriage of justice raises troublesome questions which call for serious reflection even if there are no easy answers.  The tragic death of social activist Khurshid Anwar, who committed suicide in December 2013 following charges of rape – possibly pushed to the edge by a television programme – underlines the grave consequences that thoughtless or irresponsible journalism, however well-intentioned, can lead to. 

The good news is that there is growing debate among journalists themselves on issues concerning media coverage of sexual violence in general, and rape in particular.  Such welcome introspection has led to several attempts – by journalists or with their involvement – to evolve practical dos and don’ts that recognise the realities of reporting news in an ever more competitive media environment, but seek to promote ethical practice despite the undeniable, disagreeable pressures that most journalists, especially reporters, have to contend with.

However, the media’s equally critical sins of omission have yet to receive the attention they demand if coverage of sexual assault, including rape, is to serve its logical purpose:  justice in general, gender justice in particular and, ultimately, a necessary decline in the prevalence of such violence.

A collaborative academic study focussing on “sexual violence journalism” in four leading English language publications before and after December 2012 concluded that, although this section of the press has made “small but important progress with respect to reporting on gender justice,” the news media need to move beyond “the incident and crime cycle,” and away from the sensational aspects of such crimes, to progress towards “gender justice sensitive reporting.”

What would this involve?  To begin with, an acknowledgement – especially by decision-makers in the media – that coverage of gender-related events and issues, including sexual violence, is serious business.  Those reporting and commenting on the subject need to acquaint themselves with the complexities of the subject, the history of efforts to deal with these issues, and the debates and actions that have taken place in the past (in India from at least 1980 onwards).

In the wake of the December 2012 gang-rape, for example, some sections of the media spearheaded a vociferous crusade calling for capital punishment in cases of sexual assault. There is little doubt that the relentless, emotive, campaign-style coverage and impassioned, impatient television debates contributed to the apparent manufacture of consent among vocal sections of the media-consuming public about the desirability of the death penalty for rape, if only in high-profile cases.  Little attention was paid to the fact that women’s organisations with long experience in tackling gender violence, as well as other groups and individuals committed to human rights, oppose the death penalty on the ground that it is not only wrong in principle but also unlikely to work in practice, especially in terms of reducing the incidence of sexual assault or increasing the conviction rate or both. 

The excessive and blinkered focus on retributive justice also obscures genuine hurdles in the path of justice of any kind:  prejudice, ignorance, negligence, incompetence and worse within the investigative, legal and judicial systems. The media would serve the cause of justice better if they spent time and energy on creatively exposing these impediments instead of chasing elusive “exclusives” that are often based on unconfirmed (often incorrect), inconsequential or salacious trivia that shed no light on the matter and often violate the rights of the human beings involved. 

Data on sexual crimes represent another area crying out for critical attention.  Apart from the fact that undiscerning use of statistics is often misleading, it appears that National Crime Records Bureau data themselves may be unintentionally deceptive, going by a report in The Hindu in October 2013 flagging a statistical flaw that could mean that even the December 2012 gang rape would not be counted in NCRB data on rape. Surprisingly, this sensational revelation, which was not denied, caused barely a ripple in the media.

Sometimes startling statistics are blandly presented when further examination is clearly required.  For example, according to data attributed to the Delhi police a couple of years ago, 95 per cent of the accused in rape cases were less than 25 years old.  If this was indeed true it obviously has major implications for efforts to deal with the problem of sexual violence. If it was not, why was such incredible data released by the police?  Or was police information misreported by the media? 

The law is another area that requires more informed reporting.  The new amendments to the law relating to rape, greeted with glee by much of the media in early 2013, were later widely criticised in the context of the charges filed against Tarun Tejpal later that year.  Both the initial reaction and the subsequent reassessment would have been more instructive and convincing if lawyers and activists with the requisite knowledge and experience had been consulted.

And then, most importantly, there is the social, cultural, economic and political context in which the apparent proliferation of sexual crimes is taking place.  It is significant that the most serious efforts to delve into the lives of the perpetrators of the December 2012 gang rape, exploring what could possibly have led them to commit such a brutally violent crime, appeared in two international newspapers.

Articles situating rape within the larger context of gender inequality and patriarchal attitudes towards women, on the one hand, and women’s growing consciousness, confidence and mobility, on the other, have appeared in the opinion and features sections of the print media; so have explorations of the skewed concepts of masculinity that underlie such crimes. However, such essential perspectives (often put forward by professionals from outside the media world), which could promote better understanding of such violence, its causes and consequences, and what needs to be done to tackle the scourge, have not yet permeated sufficiently into regular media practice. 

There is clearly an urgent need to step up and institutionalise ongoing efforts to improve media coverage of sexual violence. In some parts of the world media professionals have sought sensitivity training from survivors of crime and those helping them to secure justice in order to improve the accuracy of their coverage and minimise the trauma it can cause.  Such initiatives could make all the difference provided media institutions are willing to do things differently in order to make a difference. 

(The writer is a journalist and author based in Bangalore)
 
References (Some Resources):
  1. ‘When Survivors Become Victims’ by Sameera Khan in ‘Missing Half the Story: Journalism as if Gender Matters,’  Kalpana Sharma (ed.), Zubaan Books, 2010
  2. The Hoot (www.thehoot.org):  a media watch website – http://www.thehoot.org/resources/reporting-rape
  3. Press Council of India:  Norms of Journalistic Conduct (http://presscouncil.nic.in/NORMS-2010.pdf)
  4. News Broadcasters’ Association: Guidelines on Reportage of Cases of Sexual Assault (issued http://www.nbanewdelhi.com/images/uploadfile/43_PRESS%20RELEASE%207-1-13.pdf)
  5. Report Responsibly (http://report-responsibly-india.tumblr.com):  a platform to host conversation and generate debate about responsible reporting on sexual assault in India.
  6. The Blue Pencil (pencilblue.wordpress.com): a media watch project to monitor reporting on gender violence.
  7. Network of Women in Media, India:  http://www.nwmindia.org (e.g., http://nwmindia.org/about-us/statements/nwmi-statement-on-insensitive-media-coverage-of-gang-rape-victim-in-west-bengal-june-14-2013, http://nwmindia.org/about-us/statements/nwmi-statement-at-mumbai-february-2013-the-media-must-be-part-of-the-solution-not-the-problem, http://www.nwmindia.org/national/identifying-survivors-of-sexual-assault-who-decides)

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