Press coverage of recent acts of sexual violence against women in India has led to calls for major changes in criminal laws and social attitudes in the country, says Anjani Trivedi, a Master of Journalism student at the JMSC.
According to Trivedi, while violent sexual acts like rape are prevalent in many countries, in the past few months the press in India has made them a part of the public discourse, fueling popular outrage and movements for reform there and around the world.
Trivedi, while interning at the New Delhi bureau of the New York Times this winter, helped report on the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student who later died from the injuries she sustained during the assault.
“The extensive media coverage of the assault and the protests (that followed it) helped kick-start officials’ efforts”, she said on February 21 during a panel discussion of how gender-based violence is portrayed in the media. She said movement toward change has been seen “from improving safety in the capital to changes in the legal processes, swifter police response and – although not enough – on sexual education and societal norms”.
In addition to prompting world-wide protests and boosting campaigns like One Billion Rising, which calls for gender equality and the end of violence against women, coverage of the gang rape forced Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to offer condolences to the victim’s family and to move to impose harsher punishments for crimes against women.
“It has put the issue of sexual assault on the political agenda. That a rape would become such an issue that the otherwise muted and silent Prime Minister had to make a statement on it, says a lot”, Trivedi said.
The culmination of a series of events at HKU that were a part of the One Billion Rising campaign, the panel discussion was hosted by Speak for Humanity and the Emerging Strategic Research Theme on Diversity Studies. It explored ways of talking and writing about sexual violence that would be more personal, respectful, and compassionate.
Trivedi got a close-up look at one part of the problem – how the media often publishes exaggerated and inaccurate information about a story like this.
“The Indian media, notorious for sensationalizing and exaggerating, produced reams of details on the victim’s condition – how she looked, marks on her body, scenes from the rape, but none were confirmable”, Trivedi said. “At the New York Times’ New Delhi Bureau, we collected facts from verifiable and direct sources”.
Other speakers on the panel also said the media often sensationalizes stories of sexual violence, and that articles tend to focus on the shame of the victim rather than the brutality of the perpetrator. In the process, the story becomes not about a violent act, but about the humiliation of the victim.
Referring to occasions when the press had misrepresented sexual violence in order to sell more newspapers, Puja Kapai, an Associate Professor of Law at HKU, said in an email that “It highlights the paucity of journalist ethics where the decision on what to print is based solely on what makes a piece newsworthy. Rape is a part of a story’s calculus for shock value”.
Winnie So, a freelance writer, said journalists have to take into account “the whole narrative of rape” and not just focus on the violence. “They also need to take it further, to say what happens afterwards for the perpetrator as well as the survivor”, she said. “Focusing on fear and violence and on what gets your attention makes it only a tragedy”.