When Times of India published an article last week reporting the rape of a woman at Hauz Khas, it was called out by journalists and media houses like NewsLaundry for its insensitive reporting, perpetuating journalism that indulges in victim-shaming, and dramatizing news in order to increase readership. The callous report included various details about the survivor, like where she lives and what state she is from, which hinted at her identity. Disclosing the identity of a survivor of sexual assault, despite being highly unprofessional, is a serious criminal offence under section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, which prevents persons from publishing or printing the name(s) or details of a person against whom the offences of Section 375 [Rape], 376A, 376B, 376C, 376D have been committed or alleged. The legislative intent behind this provision is to give the survivor a right to their privacy, peace and dignity and to prevent her from victimization and ostracism from the public.
On Friday, February 16, news reports emerged addressing the rape of a Malayalam actor in Kerala, and it’s not a surprise that the reporting was coloured with prejudice and hinted toward victim blaming. Before we get into the outrageous way that the incident was sold to the audience, here’s what you need to know about it – the actor was attacked by a group of men on Friday night as she was returning home from work. She was sexually assaulted in a moving car for about 2.5 hours as the perpetrators drove around the city, and they also clicked photographs of her. She was finally dropped off at a friend’s place and was warned not to take the case to the police.
CPI-affiliated Kairali TV, one of the most popular Malayalam news channels in Kerala, reported the incident using the actor’s name and suggested to its audience without any proof or fact-finding that she was in a relationship with her driver. The channel also aired specific details of the incident. Kairali TV’s unethical journalism has not only violated the law, but it has also exposed the misogyny in reporting sexual violence against women. Since then the news channel has also come under rightful criticism for indecent conduct by many celebrities like Rima Kallingal, who told the MD of the news channel, John Brittas, to keep check on their reporting. She called out the appalling behavior of the channel to glorify a sexual assault story about another celebrity to increase their TRPs instead of being sensitive about the issue.
Kairali TV is not the only channel to be a perpetrator of bad journalism when it comes to reporting sexual violence. Deccan Chronicle and Hindustan Times have shared blurred photos of the actor in their news reports, adding to the juice and curiosity factor in order to induce more views. The news pieces have gone so far as to even tell the readers about the number of films done by the actor and also mentioned when she debuted in the film industry. Despite being in violation of the law because it hints toward the Malayalam actor’s identity, this approach toward reporting sexual violence reeks of apathy towards survivors of rape and is extremely unethical and lowers the standard of Indian media.
A popular women’s website, Vagabomb, didn’t just name the survivor but also put her picture and ‘real’name, along with details like from where she was returning and the ordeal she had to go through in the car.
Milking a horrific experience of rape and turning it into a “story” to add to the element of entertainment speaks volumes about Indian journalism and points towards a larger problem in Indian society which needs to be addressed immediately – we are so insensitive and ignorant toward the traumatic realities of rape survivors that we do not care to account for them and neither are we respectful to their plights.
The problem doesn’t end here. The way media has reported how Kairali TV received criticism doesn’t do justice to the issue at all. News reports have not only failed to take a stance against bad journalism (which ends up being detrimental to them as well) but have also used terms such as “shamed”, or “slammed for insensitivity” or “received backlash” to describe dissent against the channel. Even if mainstream media does not support Kairali TV, using such terminology makes the situation seem as if the criticism it faced for bad reporting ethics was uncalled for. It was extremely heartening to see so many people stand up against Kairali TV, but media’s reluctance towards taking a harsher stand against the channel not only undermines the efforts of many who advocate sensitivity in reporting but also heavily trivializes the issue.
It’s even more shocking to know that Kairali is not the only one sensationalizing the issue and presenting it to audiences as a story. Apparently, a terrifying incident of rape does not need to be reported as just that, but many websites have filed this news under sections such as “Entertainment”, “Regional Cinema”, and “Showbiz”. Notable names of news websites who have done this are – Indian Express, India Today, Deccan Chronicle and Blasting News. We are really dismayed that a harrowing incident as this one could not be written as a crime piece but had to be specially mentioned under Entertainment sections as a gossipy piece.
Apart from the lack of common sense, sensitivity and ethics in reporting, news reporters have also glamorized the incident by swooning over actor Prithviraj Sukumuran’s statements about how he will never do misogynistic films again. The media is glorifying these statements as if it’s a heroic and noble deed, and in doing so it is shifting the focus from the gravity of the incident, but also, how no one has found it problematic that the actor decides to apologize for misogynistic content in his films after so long?!
Why does an actor need to make a specific declaration against sexism? Why isn’t this obvious enough? Taking a stance against misogyny and refusal to work in misogynistic films is supposed to be the natural state of affairs, not the exceptional case, so we don’t see why someone should be lauded for such a step.
Quite honestly, we’re tired of seeing sub-par and disrespectful journalism with regard to sexually violent cases and reports. The media being the biggest resource for knowledge ends up being an influencer of the masses- people imbibe what they read. So it’s increasingly becoming more important that news houses and blogs start taking accountability for how they talk about sexual abuse cases.
In an effort to improve the scope of gender-ethical journalism, Feminism In India’s 2015 #GBVInMedia campaign has published guidelines that’ll help maintain sensitivity in reporting sexual violence. The campaign looked into how mainstream media has misrepresented and misreported gender and gender-based violence and correcting this practice.
We believe that simple steps could go a long way. Reporters need to start being careful of the language they use – small changes such as replacing the words “victim” with “survivor” can result in positivity because it shifts the person from the derogatory sad light they are seen in and gives them credit for their ongoing battle. It would also help if reports focused on the crime and the accused rather than the individual it was committed upon, and any language suggesting that the survivors of sexual violence encouraged the attack should be avoided. Balancing out articles in this way ensures the objectivity in reporting we seek to achieve and in the long run, it improves the existing narrative around rape culture and gendered violence, and helps shape our mentality around it for the better.
Featured Image Credit: Nalyn Ramirez