Enlisting the media

IN Opinion | 10/01/2013
The newly galvanised Indian protester on the street needs to recognise that the media amplifies best when it has half its work done for it.
SEVANTI NINAN on how civil society can assist media in combating gender violence.

Sevanti Ninan     

After three unbroken weeks of first leads in the Times of India  and something close to that  in the Hindu and Hindustan Times, there were finally indications on  January 9 that  the raging issue of rape and violence against women  is beginning  to go off front pages.  The line between staying with  an issue  because it has aroused your own conscience as a media house  and continuing to live off  it because  you think that is what readers and viewers want, is thin.  When the latter incentive fades newspapers and TV channels have to take a call on whether they can sustain a new found commitment to ending gender violence,  or pat themselves on the back for having been more sensitive than usual  this time around,  and go back to business as usual.

On the same day, as it happens, there was another gang rape reported  from Outer Delhi and two other incidents of rape  but  except for a small item on page one in the Hindustan Times you would have to look quite hard to locate  these reports in our English press in the capital city. In TOI there was a small item on page five, in the Indian Express  inside the local city supplement.  However  the same issue of the Express has  a big story spread on an inside page on how the family of an earlier victim of gang rape in Sikar in Rajasthan is coping.  On January 10 the paper ran  a front page anchor on how a project to sensitise policemen on gender issues is faring. The media is not lifting its gaze totally from the issue. It is too early for that.

The point is, what next?  There is much to be done if the Delhi gangrape is to become the trigger for  future  media activism which can keep administrations alert.  If there is a rape in India every 22 minutes, it is  time the  law and policing around gender crimes became a priority beat for media houses everywhere.  But the newly galvanised Indian protester on the street needs to recognise that the media amplifies best when it has half  its work done for it.  This  cause too then needs an Arvind Kejriwal to keep the battle against gender violence fuelled.  Give journalists the ammunition , they will pick it up and run. Leave it to them and the reporting on the street will remain  thin. Between ngos, citizen journalists, social media networks and women’s groups the recognition needs to come that  alliances have to be built.

Having lots of media is a huge advantage  but fighting for women’s safety in this society is even tougher than fighting corruption.  The young people who  were  galvanised to protest in Delhi and elsewhere need to  recognise their own centrality to keeping the media engaged. They have to turn watchdogs, first line reporters, and protesters all year round. How do you build a gender issues brigade equivalent to National Election Watch  with its fabulous  information collection system, or India Against Corruption with its hyperactive mailing list? And what should its components be?

An sms service from Chhattisgarh sends out tireless alerts on nasty things happening in the state in terms of corruption (exposecg.com).  Of  late the number of items related to rape have increased.  Names of places and people, and some details about the victims  arrive  regularly on a journalist’s  mobile phone.  Is there a model here  for sufficiently motivated activists in districts all over the country to emulate? What sort of gate-keeping would it need, what kinds of  alerts would be warranted?  Whistle-blowing against offenders in administration and in the political class?  Against local media that is gender insensitive or titillating?  First hand reports of alleged abuse in institutions for women and children?  Or of police stations refusing to register cases against influential people in cases of sexual violence  or intimidation?

There has been talk of devising mobile phone apps which enable sending out  alerts for help in an emergency situation.   Today large number of  village women have mobile phones.  Even when  they are not literate they are technology savvy.  Is there something here that needs following through?  

There is also a popular culture battle to be fought if the male perception of women as sex objects has to be change. News channels that belong to TV networks with  their own entertainment channels need to ask themselves how serious they are about changing gender perceptions given their own weekend film based programming  and the messaging that goes out on serials on their sister channels such as Star Plus, or Colors or Zee.  Lots of room for activism here .  Start by making  media houses accountable for the content they disseminate.  Then turn to those clever creative directors in advertising agencies who think of  new ways to commodify women.

A recent study in Pakistan on how to begin combating violence against women focused on the role of two key professional groups--the police and the media.  We would be on pretty solid ground if we did that here.


(This is a slightly expanded version of a column which appears in Mint, January 10, 2012)                               

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