Dubious ethics in Bengaluru assault reporting

BY GEETA SESHU| IN Media Practice | 08/02/2016
The media hypes up racism, but who will call out the racism that Deccan Chronicle and others displayed,
asks GEETA SESHU

Karnataka's Home Minister G Parameshwara  during press conference 

 

The shocking reports of the assault of a Tanzanian in Bengaluru last week sparked a lot of discussion in the media over the ugly racism prevailing in society, but what of the racism within the media and the unethical manner in which sections of the media covered the incident? Who’s going to call that out?

Newspapers, broadcast television and even online newssites have had a field day with reports and comments on the incident that served to exhibit the extent of bias and hostility towards African students.

An initial report from Deccan Chronicle said that there were five persons in the vehicle, including two girls. But there were only four persons in the vehicle. The report also said the girl was ‘paraded’, but this did not happen. Again, they may seem like such minor errors when compared to the report that followed – ‘Road rage gets a foreign face’ said: A day after an African student killed a 35-year-old mother of two, the issue of African nationals residing in the city causing menace to the locals and disturbing peace and order, has hit the spotlight again.

The report makes no attempt to hide any bias or hostility towards the ‘foreign’ nationals and begins with an intro that reads: Many students, including the foreigners, are found drinking alcohol and doing drugs near Gutta Basavanna Temple late night.

The report quotes locals who accuses both police as well as college authorities (of four colleges - Acharya College, Sri Krishna Institute of Technology, Sapthagiri College and R.R. College) of turning a blind eye to the activities of the foreign students, but doesn’t make any attempt to contact the police or the college authorities for their comments or their version of the allegations leveled by locals.

Deccan Herald, in a report entitled ‘Assaulted Tanzanian was in killer car, claim cops’, added that the 'Student cooked up story after she was let off '. The report, attributed to a police inspector who was not named, alludes to eye-witness reports that the girl was drunk and that she was let off along with two others: “We presumed that the incident might take a serious turn and let the three others go. We trusted her and thought that she would come back. We never imagined that she would backtrack and cook up a story”, says the unidentified police officer. The allegation that the girl was present in the first vehicle that caused the fatal accident was vigorously contested by the All African Students Union spokesperson Bosco Kaweesi. The girl was actually in a vehicle that drove by on the same road 20 minutes later. Kaweesi also asked that a medical report be produced that the student was drunk.

The question friends of the student have is whether these reports are attempts to assist the classic damage-control strategies of an administration under pressure? Usually, such reports debunk the victims’ testimony, poke holes in it or undermine the credibility of the complainant, casting a shadow of doubt over the incident, minimizing the damage and thereby influencing public opinion against the victim/complainant!

Sections of the media took on the Karnataka government on whether the student was stripped and if this was a ‘racist’ attack, both of which the government had tried to refute. A CNN-IBN broadcast juxtaposed the statement of Karnataka’s Home Minister G Parameshwara which contradicted that of the state’s Director General of Police Om Prakash. The former also irresponsibly blurted out the name of the victim and then defended his right to do so, when questioned at a press conference!

The news site The News Minute carried a report,  an interview with the young woman, entitled ‘'Bengaluru was home to me, now I live in fear': Tanzanian woman's night of horror’. But, as it later transpired, the student didn't know that she was speaking to a journalist from the news site. "She was never informed that a journalist was speaking to her and would make use of her statements as an interview,” said those close to the student. The site's Managing Editor Dhanya Rajendran disputes this and says  this  is wrong.  "I clearly said I am a journalist, not someone from Tanzania."

After pressure from the student and her friends, the website carried a small disclaimer in the form of an editor’s note: Editor’s note: The first version of this story had detailed quotes from the victim. But she was later not comfortable with the published material and informed us that she was not aware she was being interviewed. Respecting her wishes, we have taken down the quotes, and retained only the crux of the narration.

The Hoot  asked The News Minute about the disclaimer and why the misleading headline was still on the site.  Dhanya Rajendran said that a number of reporters had been given the contact number of the student and when she managed to contact her the second day after the incident, a friend told her the girl was willing to speak on the telephone. “I spoke to her for 45 minutes and I did tell her I was a journalist but later, her lawyer said she was under the impression I was a blogger! I could have stuck to my ground but, in the interests of her sensitivity, I chose to take out her quotes”.

She also said said the headline had been altered.  She stressed that, initially, the girl and her friend reacted positively to the interview. "The lawyer told me to take off recounts which I did,"she said.

Referring to the media coverage of the incident, Rajendran added that the entire issue was dealt with quite badly from day one. Some media houses claimed the girl was in the car with the Sudanese national, others surreptiously shot a vide of the girl and broadcast it without permission while another Facebook page,  popular in Karnataka, chose to post a year-old video of an African student hitting an Indian, thereby feeding into the worst parochial attitudes of general citizens.

“The initial report came out in the Deccan Chronicle and Bosco Kaweesi spoke to the media later but he didn’t have all the information of the incident with him, including whether she was in the car or was stripped and paraded. It was these incomplete facts that the Kannada media quickly caught on and this fuelled the parochialism,” Rajendran surmised.

Indeed, what made the free-for-all worse was that some of her ‘so-called friends’ blithely gave out her phone number to the media and let others have access to her.The already traumatised student, who categorically told her fiends she does not want to interact with the media, now doesn’t know who to trust and speak to.

In the first reports of the incident, NDTV’s news anchor and reporter identified the students as being of ‘African origin’ but the ticker persisted in displaying the victims of the mob attack as ‘Nigerian’. This may seem like a harmless inaccuracy, an error of a newsroom in a careless hurry to put the news out. But, it is an inexcusable blurring of the identities of all persons of African origin in India and just feeds into existing stereotypes of ‘Nigerians’ in the media and in general society in India (as persons indulging in phishing or dealing with drugs and getting involved in criminal activity).

The Kannada papers were no better, with  Vijaya Vani terming the incident ‘African Safari’. Media reports said that the student was unhappy with the action of the police but she did say that the police later took action and that she was satisfied by the police action, but the media persisted in saying that the student was ‘complaining’ about the police.

Meanwhile, while tension remains unabated in the area amid fears of attacks on the students, the Acharya College has taken no action much less made any response at all. Shouldn’t the media be focusing on these acts of omission and holding the college responsible for its students? Shouldn’t the media focus on the need for better integration of the students with the local populace and the factors that discourage this? Shouldn’t the media exercise restraint and sensitivity in covering such an atrocious incident?

There are a number of check-lists, codes and guidelines that govern ethical media coverage of incidents of sexual violence and communalism. The media is a hungry beast and, in the absence of a coherent official response, it will seek its tid-bits from everywhere. In the process, privacy violations and sensitivity are sacrificed but as this incident shows, racism and misogyny are the other beasts lurking around. The media has only exacerbated the situation by providing fodder for these attitudes.

 

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