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'Rape is not just another crime'

May 11, 2009

Reporting of a heinous crime like rape in Indian mainstream media is voyeuristic, insensitive, sensational, speculative and thus unethical. Kamayani Bali-Mahabal explores how prejudiced reporting can also mean subjecting the victim to a 'second rape.'

Mumbai: The gold standard for journalistic insensitivity was established in the 1960s by an unnamed British TV reporter, who was trawling for news in the Congo. According to foreign correspondent Edward Behr's 1978 memoir, the Brit walked through crowd of terrified Belgian colonials who were evacuating in an airport, shouting, "Anyone here been raped and speaks English?"

Rape has become something of a human interest story-of-choice for the mainstream media. But more coverage has usually not meant better coverage. The recent rape incident of an American student in Mumbai and its reporting in various newspapers has, once again, ignited the debate on media ethics.

"Prejudiced and insensitive reporting is like 'second rape', causing the victim to feel violated all over again. The press wields a lot of power, owning to its wide reach. But through irresponsible reporting, it silences even those who have the courage to speak out," says Flavia Agnes, a women's rights lawyer and writer, actively involved in the women's movement for the last two decades.

'Blaming the victim' is a common social response to violence against women, and the media on its part is doing little to prevent this. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling, Agnes points out that the apex court has clearly stated that past sexual history has no bearing on the current complaint of sexual assault. If the media continues to report in this vein it could well bias the trial against the woman seeking justice.

Growing commercialisation

Dr Anjali Monteiro, Professor, Centre for Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, observes that the growing commercialisation of the media, combined with a constantly rising threshold of voyeuristic pleasure provided by the media, makes for the abandoning of media ethics.

In addition to the ethics of representation, one has also to look at its politics. The dominant relations of power get reflected in what is considered 'newsworthy', how it is reported, what frames of reference are used to evaluate it, and so on. Thus, the gendered norms for the public presence of women and men get reproduced without any critical reflection: for instance, the assumption that a girl who goes out late at night with boys, drinks, and so on, is 'asking for it'. We see this happening clearly in this case.

In this case, a tabloid gave every single detail of information about her, including the name of her educational institute; and they printed, in total, her statement to the police given at the time of registering the FIR (first information report).

Various women's groups staged a demonstration in front of the Times of India building in Mumbai. Sandhya Gokhale of Forum against Oppression on Women (FAOW) says they submitted one memorandum to Times of India, demanding a front page apology to the complainant for having published details indicative of her identity and for using her statement made to the police, which is not a public document, without even bothering to obtain her permission for the same.

The law

After the demonstration, these organisations further registered a police FIR stating: "It is well settled law that the identity of a raped woman must be kept confidential. In fact Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) treats publication of the name of the raped woman or any matter, which may make known the identity of a raped woman as a cognisable offence punishable with imprisonment of up to two years and fine. Therefore, the publication of the report is an offence under Section 228A of the IPC."

An agitated Bishakha Dutta, Executive Director, Point Of View, an organisation bringing Indian women's perspectives into the mass media, says that it is not only a tabloid but even a national daily that carried a biased headline saying: 'Why was she with six men that night?'

"Why is the paper taking sides on this? This is not fair, balanced or ethical reporting," she retorts. Referring to a debate topic, 'Is it right to blame rape victims for the attacks?' in the daily, she said that one can debate opinion; one cannot debate fact. Rape is, in fact, a crime. Period. There are no two opinions around this.

Debate topics like this are speculative, sensational and biased. Coverage like this will make it impossible for the victim to fight for justice on a level playing field.

Rape is coerced sex; a crime and only perpetrators can be held responsible for the crimes they commit – not victims. "How is it that victims in any other crime are never blamed, but that rape victims are always suspected of triggering rape? People who are robbed, assaulted or murdered are never held responsible - nor is robbery, murder or assault considered "the price to be paid for trust or naiveté or plain stupidity", she adds.

Nandita Gandhi, an activist of the contemporary women's movement and founder member and director of Akshara, a women's resource centre in Mumbai, is of the opinion that today the context for print and electronic media has changed, as they are in severe competition with each other and within themselves.

Grab for eyeballs

"It's more about 'Grab for eyeballs/ TRPs/ subscriptions', and 'grabbing' can never maintain ethical standards. The media has got into the mould of the advertising world," she laments.

"We need to maintain balance of freedom of speech and expression and some control over the content of reporting. Public pressure is a way out and in this particular case it was the letter to editors, statements and press releases, which have bought this issue out in public to debate," Gandhi adds.

Echoing similar sentiments, noted theatre personality Dolly Thakore, who is also acting in Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal's 'Vagina Monologues', adds, "The spirit of competition has nullified integrity, social awareness, and conscience within the profession."

The Press Council of India has clear guidelines for reporting rape. But newspapers generally ignore them. Senior Journalist Kalpana Sharma says, "The Press Council has no teeth. At the most it can reprimand." She also points out that the inherent class bias is very evident "as we see which rape cases are reported, highlighted and sensationalised". The Network of Women in Media, India  (NWMI) and women rights activists have come together to start a media monitoring group.

In a profession where information is the product, it is critical that journalists learn about rape. Rape is not "just another crime" and must not be covered as such. It is intensely personal, its violence inescapably intimate. But helpful reporting on rape is the exception, not the norm.

Shameful record

Instead of hearing the cries of survivors, the press is hearing the complaints of apologists; instead of condemning cruelty, the press promotes excuses.

India stands third when it comes to the number of rape cases, leaving behind countries such as Sri Lanka, Jordan and Argentina. Only the United States and South Africa are ahead.

The National Crime Records Bureau shows India's shameful record when it comes to rape. In 2007, there were 20,737 reported cases of rape. This works out to a horrific 2.37 rapes every hour.

In Mumbai alone, social organisation Praja's recently released white paper on issues faced in the six Mumbai constituencies, collected through the Right to Information (RTI) Act, reveals that South Mumbai - considered highly educated, the safest and most affluent - has the highest cases of rape registered; and that South Mumbai, South Central Mumbai and North Central Mumbai account for over 60% of all the rape cases registered in the city.

Some unfortunate girl, woman or child is likely being raped in India, even as you read this piece.

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