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.
Also read: Hyderabad encounter jubilation: Is faith in due process for rape victims broken?
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.
Also read: NCRB data shows spike in reported rape after 2012 Nirbhaya case has tapered off
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?
Also read: Unnao rape survivor’s case shows rural India needs a MeToo
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.
Media is now either (ideological) bias or business; balance is missing. So it is not surprising that people do not trust media.
Media is business – a big one at that. Always, desperate for breaking stories, encounters of this type fill the screen for the whole day. They can make or break careers and make a celebrity out of a nobody; Kejriwal being an example. Unlike the US where the judiciary is still powerful, or the UK where the legislature still dominates, Indian media have been less powerful but more enterprising: acting as a power brokerage! Ethics? All tosh.
The media has been famously left to self police itself. How well is that happening?
Media’s lack of expertise, depth and follow through are much bigger problems than the sensationalization. If a criminal is unlikely to receive punishment, then why should the police bother to catch them? Why shouldn’t an angry mob kill when they know that the system cannot deliver justice? Judicial dysfunction is central to extra-judicial killings – yet it receives just a cursory mention.
Every case takes a decade to resolve, if it is ever resolved at all. By that time the witnesses are gone, the investigators have retired and, the media is busy sensationalizing something else. This is one of the key reasons why conviction rates are so low. Just recently, a milk adulteration case was resolved after 30 years. The media never asked: why is the Supreme Court wasting its time on this case and why does a simple case take so long?
The CJI’s response to the Hyderabad killing was: “justice shouldn’t be instant”. How thoughtless for him to say that! What a lack of understanding it betrays and how wrong his priorities are. This case will degenerate into a discussion of how our democratic society is becoming lawless and how the govt is or isn’t responsible for it. Lost in that din will be any notice of the collapse of the legal system. The collapse isn’t recent and decades in the making. How much time does media devote to discussing the failure of the judicial system?
I have a theory. There is much to question and outrage over in today’s India. Normally, with calm professionalism, the media should be tearing into all that is wrong, holding power to account. For many, led by Republic / Times Now ( the reason I do not mention other channels is because I know even less about them, Sudhir Chaudhury’s Zee, for example ) that is just not possible. Lots of no go areas. So all that bottled up frustration finds an outlet in this genre, where strong criticism will not be seen as lese majeste.
Cracks???? The pillar doesn’t exist anymore.
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