What over-the-top coverage cannot achieve

BY UGEN BHUTIA| IN Media Practice | 29/11/2013
The nature of media coverage does nothing to counter deep-seated values of patriarchy. Focusing intensely on punishment for sexual attacks and on workplace harassment is to take the easy way out,
says UGEN BHUTA

The news of Tarun Tejpal’s alleged rape of his colleague has been able to attract non-stop coverage from  the national media in India, which ensured that Tejpal who believed he could enjoy legal impunity by withdrawing for six months from the editorship of his magazine as atonement, had to face the police. Shoma Chaudhuri, who did not think it was necessary to form a Complaints Committee or report the case to the law enforcement agency was reminded about the Vishaka Guidelines by the media. These state, “It shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts, of sexual harassment by taking all steps required”. At first glance it seems that media as significant tool in abolishing violence against women has risen to expectations. However, a look at the coverage of other such incidents may tell the other side of the story.

Media, particularly the press, due to its enormous potential in influencing the decision making and socialisation process, can become the protagonist in improving the status of women in the country. But this cannot be done if media decides to see women’s issues from a narrow viewpoint and tries to exalt one case over another.

Narrowed Viewpoint:

In the case of Tehelka, media through its narrowed viewpoint has been trying to narrow down the issue of violence against women to the ‘sexual harassment at workplace’. Sexual harassment of a woman in workplace indeed occupies a major portion in the discourse of women oppression, which may be through violence, injustice or discrimination. But if media wants to participate in the process of women empowerment it is necessary that it locates the issue of sexual harassment at workplace in the broader context of women’s oppression.

It is appropriate, in this context, to recall the media coverage of rape and murder of a 23-year-old girl on December 16, 2012, in Delhi. The reportage of the event was mostly based on the nature of punishment that the rapist should be given rather than analysing how society looks at women and their problems. Most of the newspapers and television channels went on to advocate death penalty for the accused, which probably influenced the decision of the judges in the court to consider the case to be “rarest of the rare”. But a significant point to be noted here is that media did nothing to educate the masses about the patriarchal lens through which we view these events. Rather than critically analysing and countering patriarchal norms, which are the major reason for women oppression, news debates and discussions in this case limited themselves to the discourse of security of a woman and the nature of punishment to the convicts.

Shivam Vij in his article “Why Delhi rapist should not be hanged” highlights how Indian society looks towards the women folk. Patriarchal norms that have existed since the times immemorial, has so much penetrated deep into our minds that even when we try to give justice to the victim and raise our voice for the empowerment of women, we fail to identify the each and every aspect of patriarchy. In this article he narrates the discussion he had with women in the slum where the accused lived and the values some of them expressed.  “The woman that the six killed was similarly the hope of another set of migrant parents. She too deserved mercy. And she certainly deserves justice. As I return home from the Ravi Das slum I kept wondering if death penalty for these men is really going to do justice to the woman they killed. That even the woman of the Ravi Das Camp share patriarchal ideas about men and women pointed me towards the thought that the ‘collective conscience of society’ was what produced their barbarism”.

Therefore, it’s the ‘collective conscience of society’ that media as an educator and as voice of the voiceless should try to change. Advocating for the strict penalty is not the only responsibility of an institution, upon whose shoulder the responsibilities of furthering the democracy has been held. Media as a member of civil society needs to educate the society about the ‘false consciousness’ that is rooted deep inside through societal norms and beliefs. As gender injustice and discrimination exist in different forms which are mostly sanctioned by religion, social and other such values, it becomes necessary in a democracy that the media focuses on and internalises these factors and educate the people about them and their effects on society at large. This is a much more difficult job than just non-stop coverage of unfolding events and endless panel discussions with the same people.

Whenever, women issue has been able to get some space in the media it has been treated in such way that the treatment itself shows the existence of patriarchy in the minds of people in the media. From Shah Bano case to Gudiya case in the past and from December 16, 2012 incident to present case of Tehelka the media has failed to counter patriarchal ideas. And it tries to compensate its failure by focusing on a single or just few aspects of gender oppression. As a result, citizens are left with the half consciousness of the issue. They are made to believe that the women empowerment is limited to employment, education and security for women. In reality, these requirements cannot improve the status of women folk until and unless the ‘collective conscience of society’ is changed.       

Media’s denial in going in-depth into an issue can be considered as a probable reason for its narrowed viewpoint. As it does not want to investigate facts and realities, it dwells upon easy aspects of the issues. Therefore, during the December 16 rape case it was the nature of punishment which was an easy aspect of women oppression to focus on. Similarly, now it is sexual harassment at workplace.

Exaltation of one case over another:

Tehelka case is not the only one that was reported by the media this week. Few media houses reported the death of a woman after being raped in Assam on November 23. But the irony is, it was reported two days later on November 25.

The Hindu on November 25 was the first to report it together with the Hindustan Times. Perhaps due to the competition among the newspaper Times of India could not resist the case and reported it the next day. However, all these newspapers reported the case because by now women’s organisations together with local were in the street condemning the incident and demanding the justice for the woman.   

Any handbook on journalism states the importance of ‘timeliness’ while reporting the event. But it looks that the media persons in these newspapers are unaware of it because they reported it two and three days later respectively since the victim took her last breath on November 23 after being raped and physically assaulted by four men inside a tempo on November 22.

The reportage of this incident also shows us how our media lacks in researching the facts.

The Hindu under the headline ‘Assam woman dies after being raped’ on November 25 had a first paragraph stating “Four men raped a woman inside a tempo, gouged out her eyes and beat her before throwing the victim out of the vehicle leading to her death in upper Assam’s Lakhimpur district, sparking outrage from locals”. The Hindustan Times too had the exact first paragraph because the news was sourced from the PTI. But neither PTI nor these newspapers tried to look into the authenticity of the report.

In an unexpected twist, The Times of India on November 27 reported Assam police’s statement which said that “Superintendent of Police P.K Bhuyan ruled out the "rape" angle and said the woman died due to severe head injuries in Lakhimpur district”.   

Moreover on November 28, The Hindu under the headline “Woman’s eye not gouged out, say police” reported that, “The police have denied that an eye of the woman, who died on Saturday last after she was assaulted and allegedly raped the day before in Lakhimpur district of Assam, was gouged out, as reported in the media”.

Now it seems that the woman was neither raped nor her eyes were gouged out. But what is clear is that the media in India speaks with its eyes closed without knowing the facts.

In fact, the media is so busy in updating the ongoing happenings of Tehelka that a more serious incident in far northeastern part of the country makes no sense to it. After the Tehelka case came to public domain all were quick to take it up, through a narrow viewpoint, and made it a national discourse. However, similar incidents where women were either raped or killed are not being included in this discourse.

On November 26, The Times of India reported four stories on violence against women. They were under the headlines ‘One held for rape, clicking nude photo’, ‘3 youth gang-rape woman’, ‘Jalalkheda woman files rape complaint against criminal’, ‘Woman, teen allege molestation’. However, none of these incidents were followed up by any newspaper or television channel. Hence, media being sensitive towards the women issues still seems to be a far cry, though it is trying to demonstrate its responsiveness through ceaseless coverage of Tehelka and Tarun Tejpal.

Therefore, regular coverage of Tehelka case by the Indian media can be considered as just an attempt to showcase itself as clean (because Tejpal belongs to the media fraternity) and a protagonist (because it has responsibilities to fulfil) against women's oppression. It does nothing for women’s empowerment.

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