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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Covering Rape: The changing nature of society and Indian journalism

On the evening of December 16, 2012 a 23-year-old woman and her male companion boarded one of the private buses which often ply the roads of Delhi, the bustling metropolis and capital of India .  These buses charge travelers a nominal amount to take them short distances.

photo by LingarajGJ/Creative Commons

photo by LingarajGJ/Creative Commons

The detail of the events which followed have been covered extensively by the Indian and international media. The woman, a physiotherapy intern, was raped by a group of men inside the moving bus; she was beaten and mutilated with an iron rod to the point that she was disemboweled. Battered, naked and bleeding profusely, the two were dumped near an expressway in Delhi, where they were found by a passer-by. The woman died from her injuries thirteen days later while undergoing emergency treatment in Singapore.

Six men were charged in connection with the assault and were arrested. Police claim that the main accused, the driver of the bus, Ram Singh, has since committed suicide in prison; the rest of the men await trial in Delhi’s Tihar jail.

What was new about this news story?

Delhi, after all, had frequently been referred to as the rape capital of the world with 706 rapes reported in 2012, and a city where, activists believe, the majority of rapes go unreported. Conviction rates are near zero; one person was convicted of rape in Delhi in the year 2012 and he received a prison sentence of three years, light by Western standards. Most rapists are simply ticketed and let go. With more than 24,000 reported cases in 2011, rape in India registered a 9.2% rise over the previous year. More than half (54.7%) of the victims were aged between 18 and 30 and Delhi accounted for over 17% of the total number of rape cases in the country. Research by economists Siwan Anderson and Debraj Ray estimates that in India, more than two million women go missing every year, starting in utero (with sex-selective abortion), followed by a life of violence, inadequate healthcare, inequality, neglect, bad diet, and lack of attention to personal health and well-being.

“Media has given the middle-class a voice”

“This case has jolted the consciousness of middle-class India like never before,” says Vipul Mudgal, renowned journalist and media scholar at the Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Denying that the coverage in the media was only about rape, Mudgal suggests, “What’s different [about this story] is that the media has given the middle-class a voice.”

Like the rest of the economy, media in India have undergone enormous changes in the past two decades. Post economic liberalization, Indian television has grown exponentially with more than 800 channels, out of which roughly 300 are round-the-clock all-news channels available in multiple languages. There are 330 million newspapers sold daily in the country. Second only to China, a staggering 900,000 million, about 75% of the population, has access to mobile phones. And there are 65 million Facebook users and an estimated 35 million Twitter accounts.

“For years, the political elites had side-stepped the middle-class since their numbers were relatively small and they were not seen as critical voters,” says Mudgal.

The Indian middle class today accounts for about 270 million people; this number is expected to rise by 40% in the next decade. There is a clear and palpable shift in the way politicians view middle-class citizens as they become economically stronger and technologically savvy.

In the last decade, India has experienced citizen activism among middle-class, upwardly mobile young men and women, especially against police corruption and the failure of the judiciary to act in gender-based crimes. This follows the growth of the neoliberal economy which has led to a generation of newly empowered young women who are going out to work in larger numbers than ever before. Changes came with the extensive media coverage following the murders of two young women, Priyadarshini Mattoo and Jessica Lal.

Priyadarshini Matoo was a 25-year-old law student who was found raped and strangled at her house in Delhi in January 1996. The main accused, Santosh Kumar Singh, the son of a high-level police Inspector General, was acquitted by a trial court in 1999. Wall-to-wall coverage by the media led to the reversal of the decision in 2006 by the Delhi High Court which awarded Singh the death penalty – a sentence commuted in 2010 to life in prison.

Jessica Lal was a fashion model in Delhi who was working as a bartender at a high-end party when she was shot dead in April 1999.  The accused, Manu Sharma, was the son of a wealthy and influential Member of Parliament. Several news channels and newspapers took up Lal family’s cause and started a campaign focusing on justice for Jessica. After first being acquitted in a lower court, Sharma was eventually retried and found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

“This is a highly informed middle-class,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and social commentator, “they are speaking up against the apathy of the political elites and absence of efficient governance and media is articulating this anger.”

Guha Thaukrta, who has written about social movements and ethics in Indian media, believes that this case is a historic turning point. “This not a movement against a single case of rape but against government corruption, lack of security, failing public transportation, and the entire political class,” he argues.

Guha Thakurta is referring to the large anti-rape protests which followed the initial assault in December. University students, labor unions, NGOs, housewives, and working men and women came to Delhi’s major public landmarks, India Gate and Jantar Mantar, to protest. The initial response of the government to these protests was brutal and immediate. They deployed large police force which used water cannons, lathi charge (baton charge), and tear gas to disperse the crowds; the underground public transport system was shut down and certain city spaces became out of bounds.

photo by vm2827/Creative Commons

photo by vm2827/Creative Commons

The news media not only covered the brutality of the attack and the protests, it provided round-the-clock space for the protestors to voice their anger. News specials, with provocative titles such as “Speak Up Delhi“, “Enough is Enough” and “Why India is no place for Women?” were broadcast daily; reporters were shown frequently interviewing protestors who were referred to as “aam janta” (regular folks). Newspapers captured the social media zeitgeist in reporting the case of 19-year-old Sambhavi Saxena arrested during one such protest. On her journey to and at the police station, the 19-year-old Tweeted  to India and the world highlighting her plight. Her tweet, “Illegally being held here at Parliament St Police Station Delhi w/ 15 other women. Terrified, pls RT” led to more than 1700 people re-tweeting her original tweet. According to Favstar, the social media analytics site, her tweets reached over 200,000 people within hours. All this resulted in the galvanizing of civil society where lawyers and activists arrived at the police station to offer help and advice. New Delhi Television (NDTV), an all-news cable channel, ran an hour-long special program titled, “Young India Rising” about Saxena’s arrest.

Within days the government began backtracking. The Prime Minister announced revisions in laws on sexual assault and government committees were quickly set up to review safety for girls and women.

“Government was using old-style policing on the street but ultra-modern spin doctoring in the media,” says Mudgal. To counter the protests and criticisms, the Home Secretary of India, R. K. Singh, and Delhi Police Commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, quickly held a press conference on December 21 to announce how the police had reached the victims in “six minutes and apprehended the criminals in 24 hours.”

“But media,” says Mudgal, “continued to legitimize the protests by the young, educated, urban population and to give a voice to their pent-up frustration at the inefficiency and corruption of the system and not simply to view this as a ‘law and order’ problem.”

 

Ethics of Rape Reportage

On January 8, Zee News, a 24-hour news and current affairs channel, broadcast an interview of the male companion of the victim who himself was badly beaten during the assault. Alternately referred to as “Deepak” and “Abhimanyu”, the interviewer did not reveal his real name. The man provided details of the attack and its aftermath, one in which the assailants had laid a carefully planned trap and neither citizens nor police rushed to help the injured couple.

Delhi police immediately announced that they planned to file a case against Zee News  for broadcasting the interview. The case was to be filed under Section 228 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the disclosure of identity of victims of certain crimes, including rape (as of the writing of this article, no such case had been filed).

Ironically, journalists at Zee News confirm that senior news producers at Zee had sent an email to all the journalists in the organization reminding them that Zee was not to name the rape victim or the witness.

“I think Zee News did us all a service by holding the mirror up to society and to the police,” says S. Jaganathan, a reporter for Lok Sabha TV.  “They may have broken the law by revealing the witness’ identity, but they have done their duty as citizens. Zee did not name the witness or the victim. They only interviewed the witness.”

The victim was given fictitious names such as “Damini”, “Amanat” and “Nirbhaya” by different media outlets. The names were carefully chosen, laden with the values of sisterhood, courage, and trust. “Every family in India felt, oh my god this could happen to my daughter,” says Hari Kumar, New York Times reporter for India who has covered this case extensively for the Times, “the connect was instant.”

“The reporting was not sensational,” continues Kumar, “Nobody disclosed the name of the girl or published her photographs. Mainstream media, both print and television did not jump the gun. Media was very restrained.”

 

Media responds to Audiences

“There is a significant technological and generational gap between the governing and the governed in India,” says veteran journalist and journalism professor, Prasun Sonwalkar, “70% of India is below the age of 35 and most of our politicians are septuagenarians.”

For Sonwalkar, the coverage also exemplified media’s incessant focus on the emerging middle class which is the main consumer of media products.

“The rape happened in South Delhi where most of the political and financial elites live, the victim represented ‘us’, she was a medical student and an aspiring member of the middle class,” says Sonwalkar, “There was practically a ‘media scrum’ or mob reporting.”

“Covering corruption is more abstract,” says V.V.P. Sharma, Senior Editor with Headlines Today Channel, “Violation of the body is real.”

photo by zilvinas.saltys/Creative Commons

photo by zilvinas.saltys/Creative Commons

Both Sharma and Sonwalkar suggest that the “media scrum” about this particular rape case was to get as much ratings for the news channels as possible. Many of these news stations depend on advertising revenues which can only be generated by high TRP (Ratings) and in a television market that is one of the most competitive in the world. While they acknowledge that the intensity of the public debate around police corruption and judiciary has grown, the emphasis and dependency on ratings still overrides other ethical goals.

Amidst this frenzied coverage, for instance, the focus appeared to be disproportionately on retribution in the form of harsher sentencing, for example from the current seven years for a rape conviction to life imprisonment and possibly a death penalty. The danger in reflecting audience anger, especially following a horrific event such as this, is that people tend to seek revenge and politicians look for expediency to quell public dissent.

No doubt this case of rape has created a critical space for the discourse of social justice in the media and has forever changed the way Indian journalists cover crime, policing and corruption.

And for that a young woman had to give her life.

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photo of Shakuntala Rao

Shakuntala Rao is Professor of Communication Studies at State University of New York, Plattsburgh, New York, USA.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research and teaching interests are in global journalism practices, ethics and popular culture.