The Lowest Depths of Media Irresponsibility

Dec 21st, 2010 | By | Category: Daily Times, The Nation

I planned to write about a couple of items that have been in the news lately that I thought warranted addressing. For example, the article of 20 December, ‘Nawaz to support PPP in Centre, claims Shujaat’ which included the description of PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif as “the so-called opposition leader”. It is unclear if this was a quote of PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, but the way it is presented in the article makes it seem as though it was the opinion of the reporter criticising Nawaz Sharif for cooperating with the government.

However, such items – while important – pale in comparison to the disastrous media circus that has been unleashed today surrounding an alleged gang rape of a young woman and the beating of her friend. The treatment of this case in the media has been deplorable, and while it is certainly indefensible to politicise reporting, the defamation and endangering of a young woman is the height of journalistic irresponsibility.

What is alleged to have occurred is a serious and violent crime. The two young women who survived this vicious attack are working with authorities to capture those responsible. That such a crime took place and that the authorities are looking for suspects is legitimate news that the public should know in case it must be aware of its own security.

But several media groups have gone far beyond any civilized lines of conduct and have engaged in creating a public spectacle of survivors of this attack, even judging them on the pages of their newspapers.

The Nation and Daily Times published not only the names of the girls who were attacked, but their auto license and home address (links withheld to protect the girl’s identity).

Daily Times went so far as to quote an anonymous police officer who said “the girl was raped due to a personnel dispute as both of them are constantly changing their statements”. This is beyond the pale for a police officer who is not a judge or a jury to announce his belief of the situation based only on his own personal beliefs. Moreover, we do not know what ‘changed’ in the girls statements and if it is materially relevant, or if it could perhaps be due to fear for their own security. Please let us not forget that we are talking about two young women who have just suffered brutal and vicious attacks.

Actually, it is not unusual for a traumatised person to have some discrepancies in their story when they are first interrogated by police and other officials, even if they have done nothing wrong. This was verified by a police surgeon with 15 years of experience who spoke to Saba Imtiaz.

Speaking to The Express Tribune on the condition of anonymity, a female police surgeon with 15 years of experience, who works with rape survivors admitted at Jinnah hospital, Civil hospital and Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, said: “We keep asking the (alleged) victim questions and slowly take them into confidence in order to get the whole story. Every now and then we revert to the same questions in order to check for continuity… In some cases the woman may be severely traumatised and when questioned by the police may succumb to pressure.” Dr Mubarak Ali, a medico-legal officer at Civil hospital, also said a victim’s story changes if they get scared of the police.

Atika Rehman’s blog post for Express Tribune succinctly makes several important points.

“Gang rape in Clifton” was a headline plastered across most newspapers today; while most news agencies protected the victim’s identity, English newspapers Daily Times and The Nation violated media ethics by publishing her full name, the area where she lived, the license plate number of her car and other details about the victim’s personal life.

Enter Sharmila Farooqui

During her media briefing, Information Adviser Sharmila Farooqui publicly named the victim and spoke of her in an apparently derogatory manner; it seemed that she had expected the victim to give her a full-blown account of the incident, and when that didn’t happen, the disappointed official thought it best to describe the girl as “hyper” and “batameez”. She proceeded to say that the little information she had obtained from the victim was “her (the victim’s) version” and that investigations were under way. Is it too much to ask that Farooqui show sensitivity and professionalism to a rape case? It seems that she arrived at the scene after succumbing to media pressure and spoke casually about the horrific incident, implying that the victim’s version was warped and inconsistent.

‘She lived with her boyfriend’

The police were completely out of line when they disclosed that the victim resided with her boyfriend – a statement that was published in a newspaper today. It makes me wonder if this media-police tag team is some deranged version of Batman and Robin that thrives on sensational news. One creates frenzy and the other leaps to the occasion and spews information that catalyses the media hype.

It is utterly shocking that this victim is being harassed by the media, who seems to be conducting a trial of its own. What is worse is that the girls involved have been accused of having loose characters and are being depicted as “call girls” who are involved in “trafficking women”.

Is this why some news agencies have disclosed their identities? A victim’s personal life should by no means undermine the gravity of the crime that has been committed. Farooqui and the irresponsible media persons should issue an apology to the traumatised victim instead of making her out to be someone with loose morals.

Media groups make many excuses for lapses in judgment. It is a competitive industry with a 24-7 news cycle and the audience’s appetite is never satisfied. But there must be some decency in the field of journalism if it is to be considered a respectable profession and that serves a benefit to society.

Certainly the public should be aware if there are vicious attackers on the loose so that we can be aware of our own safety. But what is the usefulness of publishing identifying information of the victims of a crime? Worst is that some news reporters are declaring themselves judge and jury and making public trials of the case on the pages of their newspapers.

It is unethical and appalling that these media groups, in a rush to sell newspapers and advertising, have sunk to the lowest depths by making a public spectacle out of two young women who have just survived a most vicious attack.

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