How the media exploited the Bulandshahr rape case

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 05/08/2016
Even as they reported the family’s evident unease about being swamped with media attention, reporters went on hounding the rape survivors.
High time they exercised some self censorship, says SHUMA RAHA
Express report: No privacy for victims


On July 31, The Times of India had three reports of violence against women on its front page: The gang rape of a mother and daughter who, along with their family, were waylaid near Bulandshahr while they were travelling in a car through National Highway 91; a minor girl in Tamil Nadu who sustained severe burns after her stalker set himself on fire and hugged her; and a rape bid on a woman foiled by her 15-year-old son in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. The would-be rapist and his accomplices then set the boy ablaze, leaving him with 60 per cent burns.

Of these, the Bulandshahr gang rape, which took place on the night of July 29, quickly went on to become the next big sexual violence story. Understandably so, because while any act of violence against women and girls is abhorrent, there is something particularly horrific about a mother and her 14-year-old daughter being raped simultaneously.

However, in their enthusiasm to cover every aspect of the Bulandshahr rape, much of Indian media have displayed a fine disregard for the right to privacy of the rape survivors and their traumatised family.  

On August 2, NDTV quoted the 39-year-old mother as saying, “I don't know how we can face our neighbours and friends...The media is at our doorstep, people know what happened. An Indian Express report on August 4 quotes the father, an Ola Cab driver: “With the presence of so many people – the media, the politicians —- everyone knows what happened. What will we do now?"

Clearly, the family was terrified of the social stigma attached to rape. Again and again the father and the mother voiced their apprehension that with all the publicity, everyone would come to know about their “shame”. For in India rape is always a double whammy — an act of brutality followed by the no less brutal social prejudice and ostracism that kick in later.

Ironically, even as the newspapers reported the family’s evident unease about being swamped with media attention (and visits by politicians trying score points on the back of a double rape), they went on hounding the victims. As this August 3 report in Hindustan Times points out, a veritable media circus erupted outside their Ghaziabad home after they returned there. Reporters besieged the house, pestering family members for one more quote, one more sound byte that could up the sensation quotient of a terrible crime. 

When yet another reporter asks a question, the father says exasperatedly, “How many times should I repeat what happened with my daughter and my wife? They have been raped. What else do you want to know? … Please leave us alone.”

On August 4, The Times of India carried a report on TV channel News24’s interview with the mother. She is asked to comment on a range of issues — from how mother and daughter were feeling post the rape to UP minister Azam Khan’s comment that the incident was a conspiracy against the Samajwadi Party government. The raped teen is not spared either. She tells TOI, no doubt after considerable prodding, that she wants to be an IPS officer. (The sensational import of this is unmissable: a raped girl who will go on to become an avenging police officer and teach a lesson to goons, rapists and criminals.)   

Indeed, other than publishing the names of the victims — which is punishable under Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code — the media has tried to extract and report as much as possible about them. And this, by subjecting them to a barrage of intrusive questions, making them relive their ordeal again and again, and showing scant respect for their need for privacy at a difficult time. 

Should the media not have exercised restraint here? This family is clearly not empowered enough to demand that they be left alone. But the media seems to have brazenly exploited that weakness. It kept up the onslaught and the family succumbed, at once repulsed and mesmerised by the attention — smarting under the glare of publicity, yet almost helplessly responding to the leading questions.

This is not the first time that the Indian media has shown a deplorable lack of sensitivity and ethics while covering cases of sexual violence against women. In a shocking example of voyeuristic journalism, on July 9, 2012, a reporter of the Guwahati-based NewsLive television channel filmed a teenaged girl being molested by a mob. The video clips, uploaded on YouTube and telecast on NewsLive, showed the girls face. It also showed the reporter asking the girl her name, and contained some music as well — as if it were a reality show that needed a dramatic background score. 

There was immediate outrage over the incident, of course. National television talk shows furiously debated the ethics of the reporter filming the assault instead of attempting to help the victim, and then uploading the footage on YouTube to garner hits. However, as a media critic commented at the time, “As for the Delhi-based channels who went on to host discussions on the ethics of this incident—just because some footage is downloadable do you have to use it in your news bulletin? Everybody did. NDTV, Headlines Today, NewsX, Samay Live news, CNN IBN and others. If you use embarrassing (and that is a mild word) footage of Abhishek Singhvi from YouTube he will sue you, so you don’t. But an assaulted schoolgirl on a Guwahati street is fair game.”

The horrific gang rape of a young woman in a moving bus in December 2012 prompted the media to christen her Nirbhaya (the unafraid). And most newspapers and television channels are usually careful about not revealing the identity of a victim of sexual assault. The name of a Dalit law student in Kerala who was raped and murdered in April this year did get splashed all over. But that was chiefly because she was initially thought to be a victim of murder, and not rape. Once her name was out, most media houses used it freely. Social media too was abuzz with the hashtag JusticeForJisha.

However, ethical reportage of violence against women is not only about protecting their identity. More often than not, the media ends up participating in the narrative of victim shaming by society at large. For example, NewsLive’s then editor Atanu Bhuyan telecast the molestation footage and followed it up with tweets like this: “CCTV footage of Club Mint bar shows the molestation victim with two of her female friends apparently drunk after consuming alcohol#Guwahati.”  

The moral of the tweet is clear: if she was the kind of girl who frequented bars and got drunk, she deserved to get groped and mauled by men. 

When Aarushi Talwar, a 14-year old girl, was murdered along with the domestic help Hemraj in 2008, the media swallowed — and reported — the shocking insinuations about her character put out by the Noida police. The suicide of Delhi model Priyanka Kapoor in March 2016, allegedly because her husband beat her up regularly, was also reported with a liberal dose of slut-shaming. This HT story reproduces her husband’s allegations against Priyanka, portraying her as someone who partied, drank, stayed out late, was not (shock, horror) maternal, and was a spendthrift to boot. In effect, the report seems to suggest: this was a “bad” woman — no wonder she got beaten up by her husband.  

In recent months, some television channels have prided themselves on their restrained coverage of terror attacks, spurning live pictures in the interest of national security. Perhaps the media needs to come up with a similar kind of self-censorship while reporting cases of violence against women. 

The shamelessly exploitative coverage of the Bulandshahr rape is a reminder that such a move is long overdue.


Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi. She can be reached @ShumaRaha    



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