Media coverage of sexual crimes must necessarily balance society’s right to know, with the survivor’s right to privacy.

Two primary concerns overlap in the Guwahati molestation case of July 9: one, the deeply pervasive culture of sexual harassment/assault in the country; two, aggravated media coverage that follows no norms and sets few limits for itself.

Neither of these are startlingly new developments. We need just recall the media treatment accorded to the battered body of an English teenager in February 2008 in Goa, the murder of another teenager in Noida a couple of months later that same year, and the reported gang rape of a student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2009. And these are just a few cases that came to national attention. One need only visit YouTube to see how ubiquitous are stories put out by news channels all over the country that revolve around women being stripped, assailed, slapped, assaulted, violated — on the streets, in police stations, inside homes.

In all these instances, the salaciousness of the television footage, or in the details faithfully garnered for news reports, are only matched by the sanctimoniousness of the accompanying script. After News Live “broke” the Guwahati story, it was a virtual free-for-all, with every channel rushing for a piece of the high decibel action. But anchors always made sure to speak of how society has been shamed, shocked, cursed by the incident and lament copiously over the fate of a schoolgirl being mauled by barbarians.

Looking at coverage

What is striking about such coverage is that its aim – despite the pretence of representing a higher morality – is to titillate, not correct; sensationalise, not sensitise. This, in turn, means that more of such coverage does not lead to less sexual violence in society. Take two other cases from Assam. In November 2007, a tribal woman was kicked and stripped on the streets of Guwahati, when she was part of a rally demanding tribal status to tribals working in the State’s tea plantations. Five years later, in a strikingly similar repeat, you see hoodlums kick a woman MLA in a recent incident in Karimganj district. In the first incident, the woman was being ‘chastised’ for making an outrageous demand on behalf of her community; in the other, the woman was being ‘punished’ for entering into a marital relationship that went against dominant norms. But somewhere it appears that the largely unquestioning coverage accorded to such incidents actually helps to normalise bestial, sexually charged behaviour of vigilante individuals or mobs and drive home the justification that women who transgress need to be checked, and if this means assaulting their bodies, so be it.

It is entirely of a piece with this script that you have statements from various hallowed corners of the country, the head of a woman’s institution here, a minister there, which don’t talk about these indefensible actions but focus on the ‘behaviour’ of the assaulted woman. They demand that she dresses more appropriately, conducts herself more carefully, etc, etc. By transferring the guilt from the perpetrators of such attacks to the subjects themselves, these high eminences are actually condoning the culture of entrenched misogyny that leads to the routine denigration of women everywhere.

So what is to be done? Should there be some “enlightened” regulation of media coverage of such matters? The storm of protest that greeted the Supreme Court deliberations on framing guidelines for media coverage of matters that are sub judice — one of the related petitions before the apex court interestingly argued for minimising the portrayal of sexual abuse and violence in television coverage — indicates that there is a justifiable concern that any attempt to regulate the media could mean bringing in a censorship regime through the back door.

Self-regulation

But if external regulation is an abomination, then we need to ensure that media functioning is not anathema. How serious are the media in India, including those that have come to be termed as the corporate media, about self-regulation? How seriously are they, and the professionals who comprise them, willing to subject themselves to the rigours of setting standards for themselves and defending these standards every day? Rupert Murdoch, let us remember, had a very thick manual called “Standards of Business Conduct” for News Corp — some might say his ethical problem first arose from the fact that he saw his media empire as a business empire. But that manual didn’t take News Corp very far when it came to the hacking scandal which eventually rendered the News of the World extinct.

When it comes to self-regulation in terms of covering sexual crimes against women, things get complicated given their exceptional and intimate nature. It would help, of course, if basic but little understood principles are understood once and for all, and not just at individual, but institutional levels.

That women have equal rights, including the right to free movement and bodily integrity; that coverage of sexual crimes must necessarily balance society’s right to know, with the survivor’s right to privacy. That such coverage should be premised on the fact that in a case of rape or sexual assault, a victim’s personal life, physical appearance, wardrobe, and past history cannot deflect from their status as crimes that demand justice. Finally, that the media must not, in its hunt to beat the competition, use women’s bodies as pegs on which to hang their stories.

(The writer is director, Women’s Feature Service.)

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