Meena (name changed) came from a middle-class family in Baroda. Like millions of girls in our country, she had an arranged marriage and had children. One day her husband left her for another woman, leaving her holding onto three small children. Unable to find a job, Meena got trapped into sex work. With the money she earned, she was able to send all her children to school and put food on the table. A year ago, the police raided her house and threw her into jail. She was there for nine days and finally managed to come out on bail after paying Rs. 10,000.
“The local television channels and newspapers published my picture; my parents, my brothers, and my entire family came to know, and I became an outcaste from my family. Why does the media put so much masala and make a laughing stock of us in society? Do they not have a conscience? Are we not human beings who have feelings and a sense of honour?” she said sobbing as she addressed a Media Plenary at the recent Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival in Kolkata.
All those on the dais, including the media persons, were moved to tears by Meena’s story. Among the 700-odd sex workers in the auditorium, some were seen openly crying. Meena had told a story that had a strong parallel in their lives.
Mumtaz Begum (name changed) of Ajmer district recounted how when three young sex workers from their community went to attend a party on Valentine’s Day on February 14, the police arrested them and put them behind bars. The police had informed the media earlier, and the latter took pictures of the women and splashed them in newspapers and on television channels.
“The entire day the local Sarera channel kept repeating in a loop the faces of these young women and people watched them in tea shops, hotels, and street corners. These women had done nothing wrong. They had just gone to attend a party. Finally we had to go and get them released on bail by paying Rs. 6000 each”, Mumtaz Begum recounted. “Sometimes these girls end up committing suicide because they cannot face the stigma from the media and the community”, she said with tears in her eyes.
“You don’t show the faces of dacoits and thieves in the media. Why do you show our faces?“ a sex worker from Maharashtra asked angrily. They were speaking at a plenary on “Media response to sex workers’ rights agenda” at the XIX International AIDS conference hub in Kolkata from July 22 to July 27. Nine hundred female sex workers, men having sex with men, and transgender persons had come from 42 countries to hold the Freedom Festival in Kolkata after having been denied visas to attend the main conference in Washington, DC.
Invasion of privacy and violations of rights of marginalised communities by the media was a dominant theme at the historic Kolkata hub.
“I need to emphasize that the havoc that media can create in the lives of marginal communities is enormous and despite all the support that media render to such communities there is no way that they can compensate or undo the damage they have inflicted on the community", says Akhila Sivadas, founder of Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), one of the co-sponsors of the festival. She added, however: “Today the marginalised communities are strengthened by the presence and their knowledge of regulatory bodies such as the News Broadcasting Standards Authority and the Press Council of India. They have learned to file complaints, approach the authorities, and get heard in places that matter.”
They quoted a hidden camera sting by the TV9 channel conducted in the houses of Devadasis in Kudligi village in Bellary district in Karnataka in December 2009. Undercover reporters posed as clients with hidden cameras and talked to sex workers and their families. Their faces were revealed and the script for the story titled “Hanumana Hendthiru” (Wives of Hanumantha) was full of crude innuendos.
To add insult to injury, the report got the Goenka Award for Best Investigative Report and it was given away by the Vice-President of India. Several organisations have now written to Vice-President Hamid Ansari to withdraw the award for its exploitative coverage. A complaint was also filed with the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a self-regulatory body of TV channels.
“Self-regulation by electronic medium is a new initiative and when it comes to violations by the media, it is not easy to ensure a level playing field for vulnerable groups. The media feel they are invincible, especially when it comes to marginalised communities” says Sivadas.
They quote several examples of such violations by the media in recent times:
- A person from the transgender community was portrayed negatively on December 6, 2012 in Chennai on an entertainment channel, Zee Tamizh. They depicted her as the cause of marital break-up. The social ostracism against her was instant. The victim contacted the channel to stop telecasting the promo, but the producers refused to respond and allegedly went to the extent of abusing her. A protest letter drafted by CFAR demanding redress from the channel drew a blank. A formal complaint was then launched with Indian Broadcasters Foundation (IBF), a self- regulatory body set up to regulate entertainment channels. They agreed to take action against the producer who had wronged the transgendered woman. They assured the community that in the future they would be sensitive about their portrayal.
- Another defamatory depiction of MSM/transgender community using unethical means was reported in Jagtiyal, Warangal, Andhra Pradesh. A sensational report was allegedly aired on NTV on October 31, 2011 accusing NGOs and CBOs in Warangal of “trapping” and “luring handsome men” and forcing them to undergo sex change. The half-hour programme, according to CFAR, was full of falsehood. A rejoinder was drafted and sent to the channel. When they failed to respond, a complaint was filed online to NBA on January 21, 2012. They were informed that since NTV was not a member of NBA, it had written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting requesting the Ministry to direct the channel (NTV) to cooperate with NBA in its inquiry.
According to CFAR, a programme they conducted between April 2011 and March 2012 with community-based organisations across four States--Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra--used diverse pegs to strengthen media messaging on reducing stigma and discrimination against People Living with HIV, and promoting social inclusion. The media addressed incidents of stigma and discrimination against PLHIV and marginalised communities in many ways. As many as 677 news reports emerged as a result of this effort.
The message given out at the conference was clear: Don’t take false portrayal by the media silently. Be proactive and contact the agencies that are there to look into excesses.
Gulnaar (name changed) from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh summed it all up very well: “Some media people are good and some are bad. Our message to the media is, ‘please do not look at sex work with a bad eye. We do this for our children, our family, our husbands’. Behind every sex worker is a very sad story.”
But despite the poor news stories, the gathering at the Kolkata hub was upbeat. As sex workers on the dais sang: “Hey Ho- Let’s go! Our right to say ‘yes’! Our right to say ‘no’ !”, Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender sex worker from Mumbai, who sat on the stage holding a red umbrella over her head, to symbolise that they were all under one roof (see picture), said the news from the media stable was not all gloom and doom. “It is thanks to the support of the media on many issues in the last decade that we have been able to effect changes in the law; without them we could not have done it alone.”
Clearly the media has the ability to drive progressive policy and fight discrimination. The tragedy is when they become the object that drives discrimination.