Rape coverage is tricky

BY Mannika Chopra| IN Media Practice | 14/05/2005
How doe one create a public outcry without referring to the case and in particular the victim?

Mannika Chopra

The story thundered on the airwaves last week. Two years ago, a nurse from Shanti Mukund Hospital had not only been brutally raped by the ward boy, Bharu, but after the assault he had gouged her left eye and then injured the right eye.  The case became even more dramatic when on the day before the judgment by a city court, the rapist in a calculated fit of remorse offered to marry his victim. In its wisdom, the court relayed the offer, which was appropriately refused by the nurse.

The whole sordid story was a made for TV event. The agony of the victim, the matrimonial offer by the accused, the subsequent outrage by activists and all thinking individuals and finally a landmark judgment that awarded life imprisonment, twice, a fine and one year of rigorous imprisonment to the accused. Two-and-a half years ago television had gone into a similar orgy of coverage when a student from Maulana Azad Medical College had been raped. Then medical students went on strike, held protest marches and, perhaps because the victim came from a better economic background, a life term sentence was awarded within a relatively short span of a year.

Then as in now, TV had tried to buttonhole the victim and her family to access exclusive sound bytes. Then the medical student¿s father had said repeatedly that the biggest problem he was having was keeping the media away from his daughter who just wanted to carry on with her life and her career. In this case, too, the media were in a competitive frenzy. TV coverage became part of the drama. Though the victim¿s face was suitably covered it was clear that she was in no mood to make the noises that reporters expected. After hearing the conviction, almost robot like, she said would have been happier with a death sentence. She sounded as if she was in a trance. Undoubtedly, the last two years have been traumatic for her and she, too, wanted to get back to a normal life as soon as possible and forget her the attack.

Increasingly, as rape cases become part and parcel of India¿s landscape, and morph into a news event rather than a social agony, the media needs to draw up some guidelines that protect the privacy of the victim. At  the same time the media needs to emphasize the brutality of the crime and create a public awareness. Arguably, it¿s a difficult balancing act.  How doe one create a public outcry without referring to the case and in particular the victim? How does one remove social taboos about rape if one is too politically correct? Is it possible to relive the horror of the moment without being charged with sensationalism? How do reporters highlight the law without highlighting the lawlessness?

It is difficult but not impossible. Remember the case of the Swiss national who was raped in the Sri Fort Auditorium parking lot?  The case drew media attention and public anger but without individualizing the crime. The police`s inefficacies were underlined  but  because of Swiss embassy`s directives the victim herself did not come into the public domain. 

Of course there is no denying there are advantages to detailed, personalised coverage. Because of extensive publicity the nurse received donations, was given alternative employment in a goverment hospital and has had a chance to undergo medical treatment, which would have been impossible given her impoversihed background.

But in its anxiety to access the obvious elements of the story?the crime, the victim, the accused, the case and its judgment--media outlets missed out less noticeable but perhaps more critical elements of the narrative. For instance, instutitional responsibility. The culpability of Shanti Mukund Hospital, says Meenakshi Lekhi, the lawyer who over the past two years been following the case was not reported on at all.  

Instinctive knee jerk reactions by the media also lead to other distortions. If you looked closely at your prime time TV news, standing close to the nurse was a bespectacled, middle-aged woman, sometimes holding the victim¿s hand or calming her in a gesture of support. For two years, Saroja Iyer  an activist living close to the nurse,  made sure that the victim didn¿t give up the fight. Unsung and unrecognised, she contacted women¿s groups and lawyers, she brought the nurse for her court hearings, took her for medical treatment and generally sustained her through her ordeal. Yet when the day of judgment dawned, typically, the media ignored Iyer¿s role and gave top billing to feminism¿s established celebrity stars.

Reprinted from Hindustan, May 8,2005.   Contact mannikachopra@yahoo.co.in 

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