Police-sourced rape reporting

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 19/10/2012
Even as there is a horrific increase in reported cases of rape, the media is demonstrating that it needs to learn sensitivity in reporting this crime,

“Damn! Yet another rape case.” If one is to go by media reports, that is how the police looks at rape cases. Unfortunately, the media too seems to be following this attitude when it reports on this crime. The coverage of the recent National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bangalore rape case demonstrates the casual manner in which the media is going about reporting rape.

A foreign student studying at National Law School University filed a complaint on Saturday night alleging she had been gang-raped a few hours earlier in a wooded location off-the campus. For the uninitiated, NLSIU is located on the much larger Bangalore University campus that also houses other institutions. A large part of the campus land is forested area.

The first reports on the incident were perhaps the most objective and described the events that led to the alleged rape. DNA provided a comprehensive report on Monday by talking to the girl’s boyfriend and also providing information from the FIR, to ensure there were no loose ends to the story.

But what they inadvertently also revealed was the identity of the woman – a second year law student from Nepal with a boyfriend from Kerala named Nirmal who drove a Volkswagen Polo. Having mentally slotted this woman as “loose” (given her foreign nationality and perceived brazenness to visit a desolated spot with a boyfriend), the report went on to quote Deputy commissioner of police (West) SN Sidaramappa, as saying “Her clothes were in tatters, but no physical injuries were evident on her.” Further in the report, the police officer said the reports of a medical examination were awaited.

If there was no conclusive evidence of rape on hand, what was the need for the report to get speculative and suggest other “possibilities”?

The Times of India’s first report on the case adds more information (or should one say “masala”) to the story. It claimed that eight Kannada-speaking hoodlums arrived on foot (Yes, out of thin air) and smashed the windshields of the parked Volkswagen Polo with iron rods (no less) and dragged both the boy and the victim into the woods. After snatching the girl’s electronic gadgets like iPad and phone, they raped her. Post the heinous crime, they walked her back to the hostel on the NLSIU campus, where they proceeded to return her gadgets and fled after thrusting a Rs 10 note in her hand. All this was attributed to the girl’s complaint, which miraculously other media outlets seemed to have missed.

How did the campus security allow iron rods to be taken in? Why did the hostel security not see the hoodlums returning with the girl? How come the boyfriend and constable searching for the girl, never bumped into her and the goons, considering the goons would logically have taken the same path to get back to the hostel? Why did the goons steal the gadgets only to return them back? Even a poorly written movie script would be more logical.

Follow up stories on the issue saw the media taking sides in reporting the developments and to a large extent veering away from the core issue of rape. The Times of India on Tuesday put out a story titled “Bangalore campus rape case takes a mystery turn”. The “mystery” turned out be the press’ attempt to figure out where the victim was (and possibly accost her with questions). The report detailed how the victim was taken to various police stations and shown pictures of offenders in an attempt to help her identify her attackers. What was the mystery here and why should such routine procedure be reported with such fanfare? The report said the victim’s friends were seen taking water bottles and biscuit packets for the police. If the attempt was to show the police in bad light, the friends could have been questioned further to see if any bribes or facilitation payments were sought to speed up the case proceedings? Or whether the victim had faced any form of harassment during the course of investigation.

Deccan Herald put out the police version of the story suspecting the case to be fake and “stage managed”. The report quotes police officers as saying there could be accomplices within Bangalore University who facilitated and stage managed this crime to show the police in bad light. “…It’s a new trend. Varsity higher-ups are behind such incidents, to settle scores with their rivals…..” Why would they do that? If this was indeed a trend, where was the data to support it?

Then, suddenly changing track, the authorities were quoted saying they were “helpless,” as they lacked resources to tackle the security situation at the college campus. “Rowdies and criminals from other areas abduct victims, bring them to the campus and commit crimes. At times, those dejected in life come here to commit suicide. Such incidents consume much of our energies and our staff is never able to patrol the area properly”, a senior police officer was quoted saying. Does this mean chances of such crime being stage managed are much lesser than originally suggested? Or does this show reluctance on the part of the police to pursue this case, considering the routine crime incidents in the area?

A day later, the same paper reported a case of the police taking a stand on the issue, notwithstanding the “inconclusive” medical report. Mr. Siddaramappa, who in an earlier report had speculated on whether the rape actually occurred and had emphasized on waiting for the medical report, now said he had nothing to do with the medical report. He said the police would go ahead and investigate based on the victim’s compliant. As if he was forced to work on this investigation, the officer and other officials told the paper that the victim may have stage managed this intending to settle scores with some boys - all because the police had not found any clinching evidence yet! Why did the report not question the police on their motives? Were they being pressurized to work on this case? Why were they so certain that the rape was stage-managed? How did all this reflect in their investigation? Would the woman get justice? An inconclusive report is as worthless as an inconclusive medical report. Unfortunately, the paper did nothing to correct this.

When there was little else left to report on the rape case, the media changed focus to cover the blame game played out by both universities. While BU said NLSIU’s students were systematically indisciplined (effectively resorting to victim blaming), the latter shot back saying BU had been lackadaisical in its security cover for years, despite the students’ pleas to beef up security. BU even threatened to evict NLSIU from their land if the students did not conform to certain time limits in their hostels. The issue was temporarily settled by BU issuing a set of norms for NLSIU to follow.

Surprisingly, the media did no fact finding of its own on whether the security situation was adequate, nor compared it with how other institutions of similar size managed their security. And even when reporting the BU threatening eviction story  the DNA reporter saw fit to mention that the victim hailed from Nepal. Does not that make it much easier to identify her?  Even women reporters cannot seem to summon the required sensitivity.

Finally, do newspapers ask their reporters to file follow-up stories even when there is not enough of a development on the case? Is that why we are fed insensitive  police speculation on a heinous crime?

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