When the president of the All India Congress Committee was taken ill last year, the ruling party sought and was accorded extraordinary restraint by the mainstream media on the ostensible grounds that an individual’s health is a private matter. This temporary piety was, of course, enforced to a large extent because information was difficult to come by. The family would not talk and the doctors, of course, were based in an undisclosed location from where it was difficult to obtain leaks of the kind that constitute news coverage without inviting the threat of litigation.
But neither legal hassles nor concerns about privacy hold true when it is not health but the body of an individual that is currently the topic of unbridled coverage in news pages. One would imagine that medal-winning athlete Pinki Pramanik’s body and gender merits much less focus and media coverage than concerns about an individual heading the ruling party whose health is of relevance to politics and policy-formation.
That being clearly not the case, sample some extraordinary reflections on the athlete’s body/sex/gender that were passed off as news – “Pramanik’s blood samples collected for gender test” (Zee News July 3). “The athlete has been accused of being a male and is currently under judicial custody for alleged rape,” informed the news item.
The same TV website flashed yet another headline on July 12: “Medical report claims Pinki Pramanik has male features.” “Tainted athlete, Pinki Pramanik’s medical report has indicated that the Asian Games gold medalist has predominantly male features,” read the news item.
There are two main considerations driving reportage of this case where a simple FIR has been enough to prompt usage of such epithets as “tainted”. The first is that it concerns sex and alleged sexual violence; natural ingredients of voyeuristic news coverage. Second is that Ms Pramanik is not a VIP nor does she have the resources to earn the reputation of being litigious. There is nothing like a powerful person capable of issuing legal threats to keep the most enthusiastic reporters at bay. Ms Pramanik clearly fails to make the grade on this count.
So whether it is the doctors who are freely offering their opinions with regard to her gender, the police who are routinely violating her personal privacy or the media that is thriving on uninterrupted coverage, Ms Pramanik is fair game.
What would be considered “bad taste” if the relevant personality was influential is routine in Ms Pramanik’s case. “Pinki Pramanik undergoes gender test, samples to be sent to other states”, reported Mail Today Bureau on India Today website dated June 26. The doctors were candid and the reporter/editors even more frank in printing what should ideally have been the concern of Ms Pramanik and no one else. “The initial clinical report suggests Pinki’s gender is ambiguous as she has both male and female reproductive organs,” said the report. “Pinki Pramanik’s gender identity still ambiguous,” reported the same newspaper on June 20.
Witness the doctors’ candour: “We conducted ultrasonography and several other medical tests on Pramanik. But her gender identity has been quite ambiguous. We have found both male and female reproductive organs on her body parts.” Information was clearly being freely supplied by a member of the medical team. “It was somewhat similar to a transgender as a result of which we could not arrive at any conclusion and suggest two more tests to determine her actual gender identity,” another doctor is supposed to have said.
The Times of India on June 15 similarly quoted Subrata Mukherjee of the Uma Nursing Home, one of the hospitals where Ms Pramanik was dragged to undergo tests. “The former middle-distance runner, who retired from the international scene after the 2006 Doha Asian Games, was found to be a male in the test reports at a private nursing home on Thursday,” TOI reported. “The reports conducted by us show that Pramanik is a male,” the report quoted Subrata Mukherjee of Uma Nursing Home.
India Today website on July 10 decided be more specific under the headline “Gender test report says Pinki Pramanik has male chromosomes”. “Doctors conducting tests on international athlete Pinki Pramanik, arrested on charge of raping a fellow runner, have found her to be male,” sources apparently told Headlines Today. Sources “indicated” that the report “shows Pramanik having X-Y chromosomes, which pertain to her male status”.
Besides being ill-informed, such reporting reflects deep-seated biases and contempt that a majority of journalists hold towards anyone who is different. Muslims, Dalits, differently-abled, people of different sexual orientation and, to some extent, women are routinely the target of such illiteracy in the media. All these categories, however, are subject to journalistic contempt only as long as money and power are not part of the picture. The Pioneer in the early 1990’s carried a front page picture of Mayawati in her nightgown at Kanshi Ram’s official residence. Ever since she became the BSP chief and won a majority in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, coverage about her has been carefully stripped of the erstwhile epithets and innuendos. Rules of the business are such.