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  • Who is the Sleaziest of Them All?

    Shilpa Phadke, Anjali Monteiro and K P Jayasankar ask why the reportage of the recent sexual assault of a young woman plumbs new depths in insensitive, unethical and sleazy journalism.

    The print media has, on many occasions, been a good friend to the women’s movement. By giving space to gender issues, specifically those related to violence against women, it has played a role in the popularizing of a feminist politics. Many sections of the media continue to be at least liberal and sympathetic to the cause of gender equality. What then permits the kind of sensationalist reporting that not just undermines all those progressive values but actually violates, in spirit if not in letter, the law? Does the logic of the market and the imperative to titillate override all ethical and professional norms?

    The Mumbai Mirror has been particularly reprehensible and unethical in making public the contents of the entire FIR in the case of the rape of an international student of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai this month violating her right to anonymity and dignity. Such reportage is clearly counterproductive and sends a strong negative message to the survivors of sexual assault. In the future, many would hesitate to come out and complain, for fear of being torn to shreds by the media and in some ways facing a second assault at the hands of the sensation seeking media. Nor despite demands from women’s groups has The Mumbai Mirror adequately apologized for their irresponsible journalism. Apart from a token and wholly inadequate apology for offending their readers’ sentiments, the paper has failed to even acknowledge that it has erred terribly.

    Nor have most other papers been very careful in whom they quote or the facts they print without verification. The Times of India, on the first day, chose to put in its headlines, on page 1, “US student raped by batchmates in Mumbai”, despite the fact that later in its report it mentions the police said that they were Tata Institute of Social Sciences students but this was denied by TISS. Interestingly, none of the other English language papers seem to have had access to this police source, as all of them reported that they were students of other colleges. While the TOI corrected its statement the next day, many people still believe that the criminals were students of TISS. This irresponsible, if not malicious reporting has attempted to tarnish the reputation of not just an institution, but also of hundreds of students who study there.

    The press has not balked at giving prominent space to the comments made by the accused who seek to slander the survivor or to the parents of the accused who can only moan that their ‘golden boys’ can do no wrong. Oddly enough one of the first comments made by the papers about the accused were that they were all from “good families”, whatever that means, demonstrating not just a lack of ethics but also a lack of journalistic accuracy. The mud slinging has begun and the press shows no signs of exercising restraint in their printing of slanderous comments by the accused questioning the morality of the young woman. ‘Blaming the victim’ is a common social response to violence against women, and the media on its part is doing little to prevent this from happening. If the media continues to report in this vein it could well bias the trial against the young woman seeking justice.

    Meanwhile women’s hostels in the city are seeking to tighten rules for their residents and restrict them further. The International Students Hostel, where many of the accused resided, has closed their mess to women without offering any explanations. Some hostels have informed women students that they will have to leave immediately after exams. These repercussions of assault then are already being felt by women whose access to the city is further restricted. Yet one has not seen a single journalistic piece of reporting that focuses on this. In their reportage thus far the media have shown not just a lack of responsibility but also a lack of insight.

    What we need now is a reportage that will focus on the larger picture, one that will be able to contextualise this one woman’s quest for justice within the larger question of women’s right to have fun with being constantly threatened with violence and then blamed for it.

    Protests and debates on the issue:

    Women’s groups and students have protested and demonstrated outside the Mumbai Mirror offices.

    Only one newspaper, The Hindu, saw fit to cover this. There has also been some comment generated on the subject and a debate on the loss of ethics of the media is ongoing.

    And a blog has been started to debate the issue.


    Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist, researcher and pedagogue. Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar are documentary film makers and academics; they teach and research in the area of media and cultural studies.

    15 Responses

    1. This woke me up. While I the media’s depravity and the mud-slinging and character assassinations are not new, it did not occur to me that the victim could have been identified by the reports despite them not carrying her name. Does the law prohibit only disclosure of names? If not, it must be immediately amended to include identifying details as well.

      Aside, MSNBC had an interesting article about how rape’s effectiveness as a weapon is tied directly to the emphasis on women’s virginity. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30353377//

    2. This whole thing is so pathetic. The Mumbai Mirror should lose its license for the callous way in which they revealed the woman’s identity while following the letter of the law. And as it is, most women’s hostels are jails and treat residents like prisoners; this will only give them the license to do as they please, especially in a city like Mumbai with a chronic shortage of affordable housing for students.

    3. I had read the article in Mumbai Mirror and was absolutely apalled. This isn’t the first time it has sensationalized incidents. After all, its a tabloid, what more can you expect from it!

    4. Media reports have played an instrumental role in creating paranoia. Now, ‘Guardians’ of majors, including institutes and hostels have taken on protectionist roles. Beefing up security will also mean more moral policing on campus, with cctvs monitoring movement, and watchmen coming out of ladies toilets.

      Would it not be useful to bring women to realise how they may use the Public to ensure justice and safety as well? Even as this case moves to the (public) court, the strength of our friend means that so many students know that it is our right to demand justice – and the support of women’s organisations means that there is also some semblance of care.

    5. I am a media person. I stand stunned by the new depths to which the tabloid, and other soc-called respected papers, have taken the profession with their reportage on this story.

      In conventional journalism, a FIR was just that. We as reporters were supposed to take information from it, research further, verify, balance and then publish a story BASED on the FIR. No editor would permit publishing a FIR as it was. We would be reprimanded for not doing our job.

      This is not to say that the media in 90s did not make mistakes, or go overboard and become sensational. It did, sometimes embarrassingly so. Now, it has lost the sensitivity to even correct itself. FIR and confessional statements are considered “great journalistic scoops” and “exclusive story material”. So, here we are, reading and cringing…

      I wonder where and when the self-correction in the new-age commerce-driven journalism will happen. Or if it will.

    6. Thank you all for the comments!

      Anatta, here’s an interesting piece on a blog that discusses where and how FIR’s maybe be obtained and the question of what constitutes a public document that I think adds to your comment.


    7. Primarily where publishing the FIR is concerned, I made sure that I got all my male friends to read it , as a measure of sensitization of the trauma a woman has to go through in that position.

      The were all visibly shaken having read the FIR in detail. I doubt a regular journalistic report would have done the same

    8. Are we getting a little carried away in bashing the media here? i mean sure it’s not perfect..but if Mumbai Mirror should not have been allowed to publish the FIR, how and why were they given full access to it? Did the paper break any kind of law by publishing it?
      I’m sure no one wanted to read the victim’s horrific tale but I think that’s partly since we don’t want to believe it exists. Even today when I talk to my 20-something friends, they don’t realise the implications of the incident. One- Rape affects everyone and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a TISS college student or a random girl walking down the street. Two- There is no way to identify a rapist. He can be a sleazy man next door or a friend or even your boyfriend and husband. While I think the FIR details could have been censored a little, publishing such reports is the only way to sensitise the otherwise self-centered public to such crimes. People need to know the trauma rape victims go through…otherwise we are going to continue to believe it won’t be us next…
      Lastly, why is no one addressing the issue of punishment for rapists. Why are they running scot free? Why can’t we pressurise the government to introduce more stringent laws so that such crimes decrease?

    9. hi. I’m not sure the best way to sensitize the public is to publish the FIR in its entirety. And yes the paper certainly broke the law that says they may not in any way divulge the identity of the victim. Besides the FIR is not quite an open public document (http://loudandproudbombay.wordpress.com/2009/04/26/free-speech-and-breach-of-privacy/ ).

      What such reporting does in addition to jeopardizing the security of the victim is to discourage other women from reporting sexual assaults. Precisely because “one rape affects everyone” we need to be careful about how it is reported and dealt with.

      Furthermore rather than make punishments harsher (which makes courts ever more reluctant to give them) we should focus on more conviction and better implementation. Feminist lawyer and scholar Flavia Agnes in an important essay she wrote on the decade of legislation for change pointed out very significantly that justice was much better served in the period leading up to the legislation when progressive groups were vigilant than after the laws when people assumed that the law would act to ensure justice.

      In the final analysis there is no substitute for a vigilant public and an articulate debate. This is the kind of debate many blogs, public discussions and other forums are attempting to foster. Engaging with how the media reports this case is an important part of thinking about how sexual crimes and violence against women should be reported.

    10. This is a particularly crummy sort of quagmire, isn’t it? Sensitizing people about a particular issue is one thing, attempts at brazen publicizing of a particular issue – to sell more copies – is a whole different beast. If you live in Mumbai, go to TISS (or have friends who go to TISS or any other reputed Social Sciences schools) you know very well know who the victim is by now. 6 degrees of separation work in unfortunate ways at times. The FIR made available to the media contains certain details that border on titillating primarily because its demanded that the victim give a shot by shot description of the incident. I have filled FIRs and it’s the most soul shattering thing to have done. The law demands you write down every little piece of detail pertaining to the crime. This should NOT have translated into journalists deciding to publish the report in its entirety. I detest censorship, but god! this borders on abusing the privilege of mainstream media. Rape is a horrific crime. There are better ways to instill this bit of information in people’s mind than write paragraphs about “pushed up tampons”. Not because it’s graphic or whattheffinhell if it is, the girl doesn’t deserve to have every minute detail of her life splashed in the papers.
      It’s ludicrous to imagine that the only way to get people to understand the bestiality of a soul-sucking act is to stoop to gutless reportage.
      MM is in the pretty well adjusted to flagrant abuse of its journalistic license.
      I agree with the fact that this culture of glamorizing rather heinous crimes may dissuade victims from coming forth and registering a complaint. If MM cares that damn much about creating “social awareness” (?) about this issue, how is it that it hasn’t asked prominent women lawyers, feminists et al to write for them about this issue. Other than some quack psycho-analysis, all the reports have concentrated on fringe aspects of the crime.
      Harsher punishments do not equate to lesser crimes. Case in point – any number of sharia dictating countries of the world.
      Besides, from the FIR reports, one hasn’t really chanced upon a previously unknown demographic one wasn’t aware of – these were well to do kids with average to good GPAs. I think one needs to dissociate with that much mythic imagery of a slimeball rapist hovering over our collective conscious. Most perpetrators are people you know and occasionally even trust. I have seen it happen around me.
      To sum it up, if one needs a mediocre rag’s sensationalized account to acquaint oneself with an issue as brutal as rape then it is, indeed, a moral (and mental) demise of sorts.

    11. Iconoclast, agree with your views although I read Isha’s comment to mean as sensitizing towards the filing of the FIR process.

      >>The law demands you write down every little piece of detail pertaining to the crime.
      >>The FIR made available to the media contains certain details that border on titillating primarily because its demanded that the victim give a shot by shot description of the incident.

      Why is there an acceptance to this? Isn’t this an opportunity to examine, debate and push for reforms towards dignified treatment of rape victims at every stage? (FIR filing, level of detail required, etc) When most of us feel strongly that the victim not be traumatized anymore, why do we live with procedures that extend it?

    12. Nobody is of the opinion that this method of data collection is without its flaws. It’s universal. I have faced the same debilitating attitude and process in the US as well. Victims of rape crimes go through the most horrific sort of emotional post mortem and it’s niether desirable nor advocated. I have spoken to cops and lawyers at different junctures to identify, comprehend and amend wherever I could. It’s a backbreaking process, of course. There are the forensic loopholes you seemingly can’t wiggle out of. Medical detailing is necessitated by the virtue of it being key to nailing the perpetrators. Or so it is conveyed. Should it laid so thick? Hardly.
      On change etcetra – There is something to be said about the environment of a police station that sucks courage ,and assorted companions of it ,right out of the marrow. Sitting in a rickety chair for 6 hours, waiting your turn so you can do a complete mental rehash of the whole incident – not very uplifting. The Revolution disappear in dust, often. Of course, that is not to say that one shouldn’t try for it.
      As long as the debates shape up into something concrete, we probably will get somewhere. Trouble is that most often than not, we have fiery women passionately dissect and analyze the system, recommend reforms and then vanish into thin air. Implementation is where it’s at.
      All the words need to translate into actions. Solidified.The problem is lack of a healthy support system for survivors of rape. That’s where we start to build from. Some of us already are. More of us need to get involved.
      Channels need to be developed to make real this opportunity for change.

    13. Btw, I am not an iconoclast but Icon-o-plastic. Or Scherezade.

      *inserts the mandatory smiley thingie*

    14. Please ignore the grammatical inaccuracies, typing in a moving vehicle has it’s disadvantages.

    15. Never been inside of a police station except for a passport, but I can imagine the numbing experience you speak off. Regarding support for rape victims, as a student I was exposed to an incident of an on-campus rape, we were all given counseling but the most encouraging lesson came from the victim herself. As the rest of us extrapolated on to her experience and convinced ourselves that she would never want to come back to the campus –essentially in our minds we closed her life – but she came back, walked the same road, finished her thesis and to this day remains the single most inspiring person to a whole set of students (men and women).
      How the support systems helped her I do not know, but it took us sometime before we could look her in the eye and say hi. A lot of crap in our minds got cleaned out during that period which basically acknowledged that the first and immediate support system of friends and colleagues had/have absolutely no clue how to be supportive of a rape victim.

      When women forever live with the fear of sexual assault, it seems like we are never there in terms of how to deal with it? I don’t have a daughter but boys can be victims too, and I want to be the first one in the knowledge-transfer-process of not just passing on the possibility of getting assaulted but to also prepare them to deal with it, should it happen. My mother taught me preventive strategies –don’t be here or there, after this or that hour, and I think she hoped like a lot of mothers that our powerful instincts to avoid and detect trouble would keep us safe. Which is useful, but I want to be proactive and want to equip myself as the first support system for the daughter or son, God forbid, should it happen. So, for me, I guess it has begin at home, the families will have to bring this thing out in the open and discuss it as a real possibility. From the families one can hope that there will be a spill over effect into other institutions forming contiguous support systems.

      Sorry about the misspelling 🙂

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