Come July 25, and the Delhi gang rape case is once again going to hog media limelight. The reason being the juvenile court is going to give the shocking case’s first verdict on one of the six accused – then a minor.
In fact, the incident that took place in December 2012 is etched in the minds of people across the globe as a horrific event that once again brought to the public debate the issues of women safety and growing sexual assaults on them. The brutal rape by six men on a moving bus, which led to the death of the victim, brought people out on streets, not just demanding safety laws but forcing every home to mull on the otherwise tabooed issue of gender violence.
The unfortunate incident inspired a whole generation to stand together for women’s rights and make the state answerable for its citizens. Such was the gravity of the act, the manner in which the victim had been tortured and left to die on road, that people’s conscience was turned upon themselves in the strong light of self-reflection and self-criticism. There were calls for social reform that were not based on clichés of being holistic but on equality for men and women in opportunity and access, in education and familial structures.
An important part in raising this debate was played by the media, both national and foreign. As the news of the rape broke, the media went into frenzy, not just in tracking the case but in leading people to introspect. A responsible section of the media asked people to be part of radical reforms the country required while it continued to give expression to the public grief, the mourning and reconciliation as people watched in horror the victim’s final moments.
However, the media was also accused of activism and leading a trial of its own while covering the case. As the movement to bring the gang rape victim to justice went viral, the nation saw widespread protest that spilled on streets across the country. The media covered the demonstrations day and night, following the protesters to every street and corner, giving a voice to their demands for justice and bringing them to the centre of political debate. Moreover, it exposed the growing crime statistics, especially in the national capital, against women. Basically, the media led bare the growing frustrations of an entire emerging aspirational urban class and generation.
It was amid these reverberations that the media, including print, electronic and social, was accused of activism. As it catalysed anger among the civil society groups, prominent dailies such as The Hindu, The Times of India, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, and others, continuously published protesters’ movement and promoted the movement among masses not only through print but also through their electronic version.
On December 19, 2012, TOI dedicated its front page to ‘Times View’ with the headline ‘Enough Talk. Let’s make women safe’. The ‘Times View’ also included ‘6-Point Action Plan’ with respect to such cases – 1) Harder Punishment 2) Sensitise Police 3) Fast Track Courts 4) Better Patrolling 5) Use Technology 6) Database of Public Transport Personnel. The Hindu organised a public forum on December 28, 2012, bolstering the fight against sexual violence from various perspectives: Legislation, law enforcement, social activism, media and from the perspective of students.
The foreign media also stood behind the demonstrators. Reporting on the death of the victim, The New York Times stated, “Revulsion and anger over the rape has galvanised India, where women regularly face sexual harassment and assault, and where neither the police nor the judicial system is seen as adequately protecting them”; the Washington Post reported, “The brutal rape shook Indians out of their usual apathy”.
Social media also seethed with anger. People connected with each other on social networking sites, offering an insight into how it has emerged into a space for nuanced debate. Within 10 days of the incident, Facebook groups ‘Gangraped in Delhi’ created on December 20, 2012 and ‘Delhi for Women’s Safety’ created on December 18, 2012 received 5046 and 4263 ‘Likes’ respectively. Other Facebook groups such as ‘Another girl gang raped in Delhi – Can we stop it?’, ‘Delhi Gang Rape – Please Don’t Ignore “Must Read” For Damini’, and ‘Delhi Gang Rape – Protest’ emerged as individual fight against such crimes. These groups are acting like platforms and have given a voice to everyone, even those who want to protest against sexual assault cases in India even if they are out of the country.
As the media created a momentum within society and government to focus on criminal acts and take immediate steps towards preventing such brutal crimes, there is however no doubt that it got carried away into the usual bickering about the political parties, bureaucrats and lawyers. There was also an onslaught of irresponsible story-telling that thrived on indifference, manufactured revolt, incompetence and lack of transparency in some sections. As the debate around the rape laws gained momentum, the media itself turned out like a dictator, who believed every man was a potential rapist and thus, called for stricter punishment, including capital sentence. There is no doubt that a large section of the media getting carried away with the heat of the rage that followed the rape, forgot that laws have to work equally for all rather than take shape according to the popular narrative.
This leads us to the point that media activism of a powerful kind, of a type that jolts people out of their comforts and brings them on a same pedestal calling for both, meaningful dialogue and action for a better future, is not to be shunned, but actively promoted. The media does not require to stay out of the courtroom, as was ordered when the accused went to trial, but continue doing its job, though according to the rules. Media advocacy is not about outrage, shrieks or passing judgments. It is about bringing people out of their closet and empowering them with skills and data to tell stories on their own.
Of course, the media remains committed to the cause of justice for rape victims and a more gender-sensitive society that it espouses so strongly. Rapes that are taking place continue to be reported in these and other major newspapers with more prominence than was the case before the incident, even though they do not always get front-page coverage. One is assured that the December 16 gang rape incident will continue to be a touchstone when covering issues related to women’s safety and that the democracy’s fourth pillar can transform incidents of national shame to national justice by espousing confidence in institutions that have been created to protect the citizens of the country.
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group