Insensitive and unrepentant

IN Media Practice | 06/03/2012
One of the largest-selling newspapers of West Bengal has shown utter disregard for decency and journalistic ethics while covering an incident of rape.
SOURAV BARMAN says the paper indulged in character assassination of the victim.

“The incident has been concocted to malign the government. A particular channel is deliberately playing this up five days after the incident. It’s a conspiracy.” – West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

“Why did a woman with kids at home, who is separated from her husband, go to a nightclub? For all you know she, may still be drinking at a club.” - West Bengal Cabinet Minister Madan Mitra

I will use my democratic right by dancing away the night in a night club, skimpily clad, will befriend unknown people and then if any untoward incident happens I will blame the government? This is unacceptable.“ –Kunal Ghosh – Executive Editor, Sangbad Pratidin.

The first two speakers have drawn much flak for their highly inappropriate remarks. Such remarks from people in positions of power are unfortunate but quite common these days. But coming from a senior journalist  whose column reaches out to millions, not quite. The third remark is by Kunal Ghosh, Executive Editor, of Sangbad Pratidin, the fourth largest circulated daily of West Bengal, owned and edited by Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha member Srinjay Bose.

In the face of mounting criticisms over many issues there is no love lost between the new government and the mainstream Bengali media which so openly came out in her support during the elections. So when the rape story was broken by the ABP group-owned news channel, Star Ananda, Mamata Banerjee brushed it aside as yet another attempt by a “particular channel” to discredit the government.  But majority of the newspapers and news channels maintained their pressure on the government which ultimately paid off when the case was proved to be true. The standard norm of professionalism demands that all relevant facts are presented before the public and eschew publication of all irrelevant, misleading, or distorted material. But Sangbad Pratidin ran a campaign vilifying the victim through a series of articles published in the newspaper. But the big bold headlines questioning the veracity of the rape were quickly reduced to a footnote when the case was established as genuine beyond any reasonable doubt. The arguments put forward by the newspaper were not only factually incorrect but broke all norms of journalistic ethics by intruding into the private space of the victim. For the information of those who have not read the reports, here are some details.

Between February 16 and February 18 the character assassination of the woman went on. On February 17 the banner headline was in bold and it read “Allegation of rape proved as fake” - based on preliminary police investigation.  Apparently, the woman made up the story to avenge an old enmity on the business front with the accused and to blackmail them into giving money to her. Questions were also raised on her links with the city’s underworld and her father’s past criminal record. The reports repeatedly harped on the point that medical reports couldn’t establish any rape on her whereas the woman kept on saying that she was assaulted on gun-point which later came out to be true. The role of an alleged “boyfriend” of the woman and the son of a CPI(M) leader was also put under the scanner in the reports. Interestingly, it even tried to project a holier-than-thou image by questioning the role played by the “media”. An article on the front page urged the Chief Minister to come out in the open with the “demands of certain media houses which she apparently declined resulting in this “no-holds-barred attack” on the new government. According to the report that includes request of a big media house to channel government funds to build a private art gallery and museum, to open up the retail sector, and a request to hand over a plot of a golf club for the purpose of real estate business. Wild accusations such as these dominated Pratidin’s news reports which were completely unrelated to the main incident. After the official confirmation of the rape came from the police, the newspaper desperately tried to defend the Chief Minister by blaming the police for “misguiding” her.

The question remains: Who misguided the newspaper? Why didn't it cross-check the initial police version before passing any judgement? Why didn’t the newspaper issue an apology or a clarification till date after being proved wrong?  The Supreme Court has time and again clearly stated that past records have no bearing on the complaint of sexual assault. If a popular media house reports on such a sensitive issue without applying any journalistic ethics, questions are bound to surface. Not a single guideline of the Press Council of India that is to be adhered to while reporting rape cases was followed by the newspaper in this case. Every attempt was made to malign the woman’s character adding to her trauma.

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