If the suspicious police encounter of the four accused in the rape and murder of a veterinarian in Telangana amounts to a blow to the rule of law in India, the media cannot be absolved of its share of the blame.
It has become somewhat of a cliché to blame the three Ps every time there is a rape in India – police, politicians and patriarchy. But it is time the media, known to show the mirror to society, also looks at the mirror.
On the one hand, it is finally heartening to see the media cover rape in its primetime debates and front pages and not relegate it to a single column under the crime section like it used to earlier. But on the other hand, now that the media is paying attention to this regular horror, it is time to look at how it is covering it.
The selective and toxic masculine outrage of the media over certain kinds of cases of rape and sexual violence has been called out several times. Feminists have consistently underscored the perils of aggressive and ravenous calls for retribution in rape cases. But at a time when Twitter hashtags and Google trends decide the editorial calls taken in newsrooms, there is no patience for these ‘boring’ warnings.
As media looks to optimise on the short window of frenzied searches of issues online and eyeballs, shrillness pays. In the process, Indian media has sacrificed the one core calling of the profession – editorial gatekeeping. Calls for instant justice, lynching, mob attacks are platformed without scrutiny or caution. The police encounter death of the four accused in Hyderabad now appears to be the logical outcome of this unchecked airing of blood lust.
Broadcasting public demand for justice is important. But it is also the media’s job to tell the viewers what justice means in a rule-of-law democracy. Justice is not a Gangaajal or Singham. It is far more nuanced, but the media’s ‘magnificent indifference to nuance’ – to borrow Slate’s phrase – is only matched by the street’s. Surely when you add fire to your ticker and scream for justice instead of listening to panellists, it influences your viewers.
On the day the four accused were shot by the Telangana Police, purportedly in self-defence, television channels thronged to the rape victim’s parents to ask how they felt about the alleged encounter.
The father’s interview in which he expressed relief over the “swift justice”, was played repeatedly with problematic headlines. “Faisla on the spot hi nyay hai?” and “Encounter wala insaaf…bhool-chook maaf?” said Aaj Tak – with scant regard for the fact that an incendiary headline with a question mark at the end does not absolve a news organisation of its responsibilities.
The competition for grabbing maximum eyeballs and ears at the cost of ethics has brought out the worst in Indian media. There is competition to appear the most outraged, the most concerned and the most provocative when it comes to stories of sexual violence. Where there is no competition among media houses is on basic ethics or gender sensitivity.
It is no coincidence that in the aftermath of the horrific incident in Telangana, residents of the colony in which the veterinarian lived held aloft placards saying “No Media, No Police, No Outsiders – no sympathy, only action, justice”.
The message is clear to anyone who would care to see the writings on the wall – the media is not seen as an ally in the pursuit of justice when it comes to sexual violence against women. For those who have been at the receiving end of this violence, the media is a source of nuisance obsessively looking for the scandal in the sexual act or dabang ways of avenging the “loss of honour” of the rape survivor.
To report or not on sexual violence is not the conundrum. What is starkly absent in the coverage of rapes is discretion, introspection and human conscience. At a time when forwarded messages on WhatsApp and Facebook lead to mob lynchings, the media cannot unquestioningly air the incendiary views of MPs like Jaya Bachchan, who call for mob violence and the murder of the rule of law inside India’s haloed Parliament.
The media should err on the side of caution and not flash the names and photographs of the accused when there is a growing tendency among the public to communalise cases of rapes. Also, by now the otherwise breaking-news mode Indian media should know they are not supposed to reveal the identity of a rape survivor even if she has died.
Finally, the Indian media should ask what its contribution can be in elevating the discourse on gender violence and sexual abuse, and not drag India back into the pit it wants to emerge out of. It has become a cliché to point out that mainstream media chooses to highlight cases of sexual violence when there is class, caste, linguistic and geographical proximity to the survivor. Rapes in Delhi are primetime worthy, but not those in say, Bastar.
When was the last time there was a primetime television debate on why certain crimes enrage people and not others? Or conduct a debate either with experts or the public on practical measures that can ensure that due process works in a quicker, transparent and fair manner. Of course, why would the channels when they can just get a G.D. Bakshi or Sambit Patra for a few hours?
At a time when ministers, celebrities and the society are hailing the annihilation of the rule of law by commending the Hyderabad police for “acting strong” by denying the accused the fundamental right to a free trial, these are some of the existential questions the media should ask itself.
The fourth pillar of democracy is showing cracks.