Indian media pounce on stories of crime against women that sell, then almost invariably do a shoddy job of reporting them
Does the media contribute directly, or indirectly, to distorting our understanding of the reasons for the increasing violence against women?
I ask this question against the background of the horrific rape and murder of a 26-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad on the evening of November 27. Her charred remains were found the next day after her parents managed, after several failed attempts, to get the police to file a missing person report.
All media ran with the story – print, TV, digital. It had all the elements of horror. It happened not in a desolate, distant area but near a toll booth in a metropolitan city. And it reminded us of the everydayness of violence: a working woman, waiting to go home, could be abducted, raped and murdered within shouting distance of a toll booth.
There was outrage, as expected. Demonstrations, young women holding placards that asked “Am I next?” These were mostly in Hyderabad, with a few protests in other cities.
The public demonstration of anger and the media coverage was enough to push the state government to act. Within days, the police apprehended four young men who apparently confessed to the crime. The government promised to “fast-track” the case. And the policemen who had delayed noting the complaint by her parents were suspended.
At the same time, there was a show of competitive concern, especially amongst politicians. As “Hang the Rapists” was a slogan that was past its expiry date, as the death penalty for rape was already in the statute after the 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, what else could they demand to be noticed above the anger on the street?
Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan won that competition hands down when she declared in Parliament (the place where laws are made) that rapists should be lynched in public. In other words, the public should take the law into its own hands. This in a country where public lynchings of defenceless Muslim men have been conducted in the name of protecting cows, with the full knowledge that there will be little or no punishment for the crime.
Given the recent history of lynchings in India, Bachchan’s remarks are even more ominous. In the Hyderabad case, the names of the four accused were leaked even before the police held a press conference. One of the accused is Muslim. That was enough for the Hindutva army on social media, as AltNews reported, to dive straight into a communal war of their own creation, painting dire scenarios of what could happen in the future. As the article rightly points out, “A disturbing phenomenon is observed in recent times where crimes as heinous as rape are communalised. The trend is not only true in the case of social media but for also prominent individuals in the government and media outlets capable of shaping public opinion. Since the brutal incident was reported, the police had identified all the four accused. But a social media campaign attempted to paint a communal picture. Irresponsible media reports, with clickbaity headlines, furthered the misleading narrative instead of dousing the hate.”
The question for the media, given the growing atmosphere of hate, compounded now by politicians suggesting rapists should be lynched, is whether the photographs of the accused should be printed.
These are men against whom the police claim they have a case. But a chargesheet has not been filed. Do they not have the right to a fair trial? How many men have been accused and imprisoned for years on terror charges, for instance, before being acquitted by the courts? Given our dysfunctional criminal justice system, is it not incumbent on the media to err on the side of caution, rather than encourage, and even join, the lynch mobs? Is it not the duty of the media to aid justice rather than perpetuate injustice? These are questions we must ask.
There are other questions. The name and identity of the woman were used in practically all media in the immediate aftermath of the crime. This happened despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, in the context of the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu, that the media cannot name a rape victim even if she dies. Yet, the same mistake was repeated. By the time some media houses realised their mistake, her name and photograph were all over social media and even today come up when you do an internet search.
Linked to this is the norm that any respectable media house ought to follow: that even reporting on the locality where the victim lives, or giving away the identity of her parents and family, is equivalent to revealing her identity. Yet, this too continues to be violated. Not surprisingly, the residents of the colony in Hyderabad where the woman’s parents live locked the gates and put up a notice that read, “No Media, No Police, No Outsiders – No sympathy, only action, justice”.
Finally, there is the question of the selective amplification of crimes against women. How does the media choose which ones to report on extensively? Convenience, proximity, scale of the crime are some criteria. But also class, caste, locale – biases that are so routine they go unnoticed.
A few days before the rape in Hyderabad, a Dalit woman who sold utensils and balloons was raped and murdered in a village in Telangana, 129 km from Adilabad. The Deccan Chronicle carried a story about her husband complaining that the state government did not respond, perhaps because they were poor and Dalit, nor did the civil society. Nor did the media, I might add.
The lack of interest in the media about crimes away from regular beats and metropolitan areas has a direct impact on our understanding of the extent of violence against women, especially poor and marginalised women, and the reasons for it. In fact, in the week before and after the Hyderabad rape, several such horrific incidents were reported from different parts of the country. But only one was pursued by the media.
Such selective reporting reinforces the belief that public spaces are unsafe for women. Instead of our society questioning why any woman should be afraid to step out, women are asked to take precautions.
In fact, within days of the Hyderabad rape, the city’s police commissioner came out with 14 recommendations on what women should do to be safe. Many women were outraged by his advisory.
One of them wrote on Twitter, “We are raped by men so for heaven’s sake issue a damn advisory for men to NOT RAPE us. Why the hell are we paying the penalty for men who are monsters? This is the problem, tell your men to NOT RAPE WOMEN! Keep your damn safety advisory to yourself.”
The other side of selective focus on some crimes against women is that people forget that over 90 per cent of sexual assaults on women take place in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, by men known to them. By constantly reporting only on crimes in public spaces, this reality gets obscured.
Although one could argue that the media cannot report every crime committed against every woman, it is evident that reporting crimes against women is a selling proposition. The media thrives on crime, controversy and crises. The media can generate the latter two when they are in short supply. But as there is no shortage of crime, the media sets out to pick and choose the crime stories that sell.
In doing so, despite the debates, the judicial rulings, the protests from the afflicted, the media continues to fail women victims of crime and to create false narratives on an issue like violence against women.