The exploitation of rape victims by Indian journalists

No respite.
No respite.
Image: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
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They sit on charpais (wooden cots), perch on treetops, speak to anyone they can get hold of, and, in between, eat chips and drink cups of chai (tea). This is not a picnic. These are members of the Indian media waiting breathlessly to pounce on anyone who can give them a sound byte for the latest breaking story, the terrifying gangrape of a woman and her 14-year-old daughter on Highway 91 in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India, on July 29.

The father of the young girl is instructed to cover his face because the TV-wallahs have no time to blur his face. He pleads, as reported by the Hindustan Times newspaper on Aug. 03: “How many times should I repeat what happened with my daughter and my wife? They have been raped. What else do you want to know? My daughter was better till last night. With all the people visiting, she is now being asked to recall everything again. She has fallen sick again. She cannot stop crying. Please leave us alone.”

Yet, they persist, the media and politicians. While this is what politicians do, rush to places where they can milk a tragedy for political gain, is this what the media ought to be doing? Has the Indian media lost all sense of perspective? Do words like “sensitivity” even pass through the minds of the editors who assign reporters to such stories? Are there higher standards of insensitivity in the way we handle stories where poor people are involved?

Clearly, more than three-and-a-half years since the ghastly gangrape in Delhi on Dec. 16, 2012, the media has learned nothing about how to cover sexual assault.

Intrusive reporting

Back then, many in the media believed that their focus on the Delhi rape played an important role in bringing about changes in the law even though it was the Justice Verma Committee report that actually pushed the government to make these changes.

The media went to great lengths to hide the identity of the woman raped, a requirement under the law, by even giving her a fictitious name. But even then, there were news channels that found out where the woman lived, sent out cameras that exposed the family and would have ultimately revealed the woman’s identity had she survived the horrendous assault.

A little over seven months later, there was another gangrape, this time in Mumbai. In what came to be known as the “Shakti Mills gangrape”, a woman on a work assignment was raped in central Mumbai, a stone’s throw away from a busy railway station. As in the Delhi case, the media went after the story. But had there been any introspection about media coverage since Dec. 16? 

There were some superficial changes. For example, some newspapers decided to use the term “survivor” instead of “victim”. Yet, nothing substantial had changed.

Even if no one mentioned the name of the woman, and thankfully did not give her a fictitious name, they thought nothing of pursuing every other angle to the story.

For instance, even when the name is not revealed, by identifying the parents, or husband and children, or the neighbourhood where she lives, or the place where she works, the media is revealing the identity of the woman.

In the Shakti Mills case, Mumbai’s leading newspaper saw nothing wrong in sending a reporter to the building where she lived, and virtually informing the watchmen and the neighbours about what had happened by asking them if they knew that a woman in their building had been gangraped.

It went further by sending a reporter to the hospital to dig out other details about the rape despite the family begging the media not to write about it, and also helpfully gave away the religion of the survivor by speaking to the head of her religious community.

Breaking news

In an age of television, this problem has become worse. In the rush to be the first to get “breaking news”, TV channels have been tripping over their own wires to interview anyone and everyone who can speak of a rape.

What is happening in Khoda, Noida, where the two survivors of the Bulandshahr rape live, is perhaps the most shameful. By hounding them, the media is compounding the horror that these women have to live with for the rest of their lives. They thought they would be safe if they moved back to their own neighbourhood. Now everyone there knows, the young girl cannot go back to school and the family does not know where to go.

Surely this ought to shake us in the media and make us introspect. How many times must we be reminded that our job as journalists is to report but not to exploit the suffering of those who cannot fight back, who are already beaten down, who have no voice in the normal course of affairs?

Predictably, though, the media usually refuses to look inwards even as we expose the faults of the world around us. As if to illustrate this, even as the Hindustan Times newspaper reported on the excesses of the media in the Bulandshahr rape case on Aug. 03, its editorial on Aug. 04 found no mention of this. It castigated politicians and wrote: “The aim should be to help victims get past their ordeal and get on with their lives. For this, we need better law enforcement, speedier justice delivery, and emotional assistance.” And a more sensitive media?

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