There's section 377, and there's media

BY hoot| IN Media Practice | 13/12/2013
Prejudiced media depictions add to the problems that communities with alternate sexuality already have. So they are organising themselves and reaching out to the media.
A HOOT report

“I am a hijra. We don’t fit into your criteria. We are here to be presented as comedy. You have created this identity for us. But I wanted be a woman, have a partner and a child, and a home.”

“Why don’t they ask why we turn to sex work?”

“Why do you do sting operations on gay communities? Show the faces of people distributing condoms? Why not on corrupt activities of politicians and others?”

“Some kinds of media coverage ruin lives. But when we communicate, things change in our favour. Journalist ko chun chun kar humne isse judaye.” (We handpicked journalists to partner us in our campaign.)

Sex workers from the transgender and gay community are trying to defuse the negative and sometimes disastrous impact media coverage can have on their lives. They have learned to monitor media for their own self preservation, and then engage with journalists and TV channels in an effort to alter their perceptions. They learned the guidelines of the News Broadcasters Standards Authority and analysed news stories. The day after the Supreme Court upheld the criminality of section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, representatives of community based organisations of marginal communities in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra brought their monitoring findings to Delhi to share with people in newspapers and television channels.

If the media wanted to cover them, they asked, why did it not cover the discrimination they faced? At home, school, college, workplace? “Media has to look at us for our reality. We can’t use public toilet, public transport. Media looks at us through stereotypes. We are also human beings. We don’t go everywhere as sex workers. We are also farmers, health workers, beauticians. When transgender people face societal prejudices, reinforced by media, they have to do sex work since they have no other means of livelihood.  

And the responses from the channel and newspaper heads who came for the closed door interaction, were as follows:

  • There are biases in society, but there has been improvement. It was worse 3 or 4 years ago. Social media puts a lot of pressure on mainstream media. So you can use social media to react to coverage. Send journalists messages in their inbox. React to the coverage. Inbox mein bhejo-- aap ne aise kiya aur uska ye natija hua. (This is what you did, and this is how it affected us.)
  • All these channels, why should they cover your issues. So many channels in Andhra Pradesh are owned by politicians. They cover politics, politics, politics. Sometimes Sachin, sometimes sex. Also sexy stories are downloaded from websites. I am not an exception to that.  But one trip to Anantpur changed my perspective. All health reporters should cover HIV.  Managements are not interested. But you find a way. I do it on World Health Day, World Aids Day, and World Sex Workers Day.
  • I have attended a lot of interactions. I realise that mainstreaming the community is related to a project. But if marginal communities learn to reach out to the media on their own that is better. No break in the process because a project ends. Don’t wait for NGOs to enable sensitisation, reach out to the media on your own.
  • As a journalist this is a very small piece of our work. Not our cup of tea, not a priority. But today (December 12) all newspapers garnered so much of space on the issue of Article 377. It means the media does have some sympathy.

The Centre for Advocacy and Research which has worked with community based organisations in the past few years has produced this summing up of how marginalised communities see themselves and their depiction in the media.              

“Listen to us, before you talk about us”

The community says:

In the wake of HIV prevention program, sex workers, transgender, MSMs and other such marginal communities have not only got together as collectives but have also made significant contribution in containing HIV spread. Along with health issues we are also addressing our other concerns, be it violence inflicted upon us or our stake in social entitlements. As collectives we also seek involvement in amending and framing laws and policies meant for us. We aspire to secure safety and dignity for us and our children.

In these efforts we often come in contact with media, mostly as ‘subjects’ of their stories where we hardly have a say. At best, media gives visibility to us, our existence and problems, which the general public knows little about. At worst, media echoes prejudices and biases prevalent in society causing immeasurable harm as well.

We appreciate media's power to influence and shape public opinion by informing and educating its audience. This was largely experienced in relation with HIV/AIDS, wherein awareness and sensitivity among media persons helped to place the HIV prevention efforts in perspective and led to minimise fear and stigma associated with it.  

Notwithstanding this media awareness we experience that the needed consistency of its engagement is lacking. At times, especially while covering crisis situations, we experience that media exercises its power of selective presentation. There have been several instances where crisis got intensified due to such media coverage. As a result we face long term repercussions, both to our existence and our community building work.

Very often we are misrepresented because we are marginalised and not accessible to media people. Their inability to have a deeper understanding of the complexities of our lives is reflected in their reports. However, the mis-representation so seriously impacts that we felt urgency to work for unbiased media coverage.

By closely reviewing the news coverage on our issues we have articulated our thoughts about the present nature of coverage and the changes that we would like to have. We believe that the following recommendations fall within the prescribed guidelines by the regulatory authorities. What we expect is their fair application / interpretation to news stories concerning us without any prejudice and bias.

By presenting these recommendations we wish to foster dialogue with media persons and representatives of regulatory bodies. 

Community Recommendations

• News reports echoing societal prejudices and biases against sex workers and other marginal communities cause long term harm to them apart from undermining principles of impartiality and objectivity in the news making. Therefore media reports should refrain from reinforcing prevalent misconceptions about the sex worker community by way of insulting and/or biased language and visuals and stereotyping.

• We believe that sex work is like any other work people do for their livelihood. Naming sex workers is not going to stop sex work in our country, which requires highly dedicated efforts to eradicate poverty and gender discrimination. Sex work but symbolises the level of economic and gender disparities in our country. Therefore we urge media to refrain from ‘moral policing’ and to following sex workers’ to their places of work.  

• Marginal communities that are vulnerable before the powerful media often become soft targets for news stories. We feel deeply hurt by stories that generalise wrongdoings of an individual in our community to brand us ‘evil’ or use personal arguments and fights among us to make scandalous stories. Such stories victimising the vulnerable community members also cross good taste and decency expected from media. Hence we urge media not to focus just on seemingly misdeeds of individuals and to generalise them and expect them to be sensitive to challenges faced by community members. 

• Media reports on raids and arrests routinely show or try to show faces of the girls who are taken into custody, although they are unwilling to disclose their identities. This is just one of the glaring situations where media is overzealous about projecting our faces, most likely for sensationalising the story. Media should realise that many sex workers would want to conceal their identities for reasons best known to them. Therefore, media should respect their right to privacy and refrain from making the identity of either community members or their family members and children public.

• We expect media to cover our issues with due seriousness and depth and not in manner to elicit cheap entertainment out of them. We find the treatment for many sex worker stories highly problematic. Especially stories that create an emotional build up through hammering visuals, loud music and dramatic narration. We urge media to avoid playing up facts, maintain factual nature of their coverage and also give us the chance to present our points of view. 

• We believe that media practices self-regulation by sensitively applying and reinterpreting guidelines in the interest of sex workers and other marginal communities. We also propose to have a journalists’ forum, preferably at each district place, to develop necessary sensitivity among them on issues of the marginalised communities. Regular dialoguing among the two can take place through such forums and improve the quality of reporting.

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