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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Reporting rape

How should the media cover rape? Focusing on survivor and family, just because they are available and too shell-shocked to fight back, results in sensationalism

In the week that Mahmood Farooqui, the co-director of Peepli Live, a satire on how the media and politicians feed off the tragedy of farmer suicides, was convicted of rape, the front pages of our newspapers were dominated by rape in other places.

In Bulandshahr a gruesome gang rape of a mother and her 14-year-old daughter set off a real life Peepli Live media feeding frenzy.

The crime was so outside the pale that in the outrage that followed, politicians and journalists descended on Ghaziabad where the family lives. The father and his wife were asked the same questions: how they ‘felt’ after being raped, what they thought of UP minister Azam Khan’s statement that the incident was a ‘conspiracy’ against his government.

“Near the girl’s house, there is hardly any space to stand," reported Ananya Bhardwaj in Hindustan Times. As TV reporters hurled questions, the anguished father finally asked: “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?" TV crews dutifully recorded his response and ran it with their bulletins.

But the circus had come to town. As breathless media coverage showed no signs of waning, we learned that the girl knew karate and fought bravely. Someone told us with great insight that she had trouble sleeping. The distraught father (yes, we know what he does for a living and the name of the company he works with) threatened to kill himself if justice wasn’t delivered in three months.

India’s laws prohibit the publishing of the names of rape survivors. Section 228A forbids both the disclosure of a name and also the publishing of information that could lead to disclosure of identity. It carries a fine and a jail term of up to two years. In Ghaziabad, everyone knows who was raped and where they live. The aftermath of the twin rape has robbed them even of anonymity guaranteed by law.

“Rape has become something of a human interest story-of-choice for the mainstream media," notes a 2012 paper Media Ethics in the Reporting of Rape Cases on the website MediaWatch. “But more coverage has usually not meant better coverage."

That is an understatement. Partly, this is to do with the inordinate interest in and increase of rape reporting in the aftermath of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape pushing it from the crime pages to the front page. Partly it is to do with the proliferation of news channels, their insatiable appetite for content and the race for TRPs. In Uttar Pradesh, the assembly election is just around the corner and, with political parties trading charges, the coverage has undoubtedly been exaggerated.

In the midst of all this heat and fury, we learn also that the two women counsellors from a Delhi-based non-governmental organization assigned to counsel the mother and daughter have not been able to do their job due to the rush of visitors. The counsellors come at 9am and stay till 9pm, “but hardly get any time with the survivors", according to a police official quoted in a Hindustan Times report. “The trauma will stay with the girl unless she is properly counselled," warns the official.

Covering a rape requires extraordinary sensitivity. There is no shortage of guidelines. In addition to the law, there are journalistic norms laid down by the Press Council of India, the Broadcast Editors’ Association as well as media websites such as The Hoot. Chief amongst these is the stipulation that a survivor must be guaranteed anonymity. The Bulandshahr rape coverage has not only flouted that norm, it is all the more egregious because one of the survivors is a child.

But more than revealing identity, media coverage of rape tends to focus on survivors—what they were doing or wearing. Even those stories that claim empathy will focus on how she fought bravely, endowing survivors with epithets like ‘braveheart’. Illustrations that accompany these stories are often eroticized with pictures of disheveled women cowering in the shadows of a looming male presence.

We remain obsessed with retribution with demands for harsher punishment, often, understandably, from the survivors’ own family. Yet, there is so far no evidence to show that the death sentence has proved to be a deterrent. If anything, the rapes being now reported show greater violence and depravity. Has the media’s relentless coverage, including graphic details, contributed to this, even in small measure?

So, how should the media cover rape? The key word is restraint. Focusing on the survivor and her family, just because they are available and too shell-shocked to fight back, results in sensationalism. It might boost sales and satisfy the media consumer’s voyeuristic interest, but does little or nothing to stem sexual violence. It magnifies the survivor’s trauma and worse, it reinforces the stereotypes of how we as a society perceive assault—helpless victim, avenging family, failed justice system, depraved rapist (in fact, nearly 90% of rapists are known to survivors and include family members).

The Bulandshahr rape survivors and their family need time and privacy. The media and politicians should focus on the investigation. There is still a juicy story here. It lies in the administration’s capital Lucknow. Not in Ghaziabad where one family is just starting the long, painful process of picking up the pieces of their lives.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint. Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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