The details of the crime were so familiar. A young woman with big dreams out in the dark streets of a busy city, a gang of impoverished men high on liquor and hellbent on a horrific plan, an excruciating litany of sexual brutalisation and death, the negligent yet perversely bureaucratic policemen. The 2019 Hyderabad gang-rape and murder was like the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder all over again.
Also familiar was the frantic churn of news stories in the aftermath, more voluminous and high-decibel than ever before, thanks to the emergence of digital news platforms and a proliferation of new TV channels. Now, as then, reports of other rapes that may have otherwise been relegated to the inside pages were treated with urgency and importance, particularly if they included details that mirrored the main story— gang-rape, fire, police apathy (just as the post-Nirbhaya coverage included an increased focus on crimes where women were brutalised with objects as a marker of ‘barbarism’).
Amid the noise, a consensus of sorts crystallised, much as it had before — India is unsafe for women, the police machinery is broken, the justice system is a joke.
This time, though, the clamour for retributive justice was louder than ever before: lynch them said parliamentarians; burn them like they burned her, said placards held aloft during street protests; kill them in an encounter suggested some tweets. In a departure from the norm, not only was this bloodlust reported by the media, several sections of it joined in the chorus with hashtags such as #HangAllRapists and calls for the swift administration of the death penalty for rape.
THE MEDIA’S OVERALL FRAMING AND TREATMENT OF THE GANG-RAPE PLAYED INTO AND HEIGHTENED THE PUBLIC OUTRAGE OVER THE CASE, EVEN AS IT EXERTED GREATER PRESSURE OF THE POLICE TO ‘ACT’
And then, in the early hours of December 6, less than 10 days after the victim’s burning body was discovered, nothing was familiar. The mood in Hyderabad turned from funereal to festive. Sweets were distributed, firecrackers were burst, the police officers who had been the target of brickbats a day before were showered with rose petals. The four men accused of gang-raping the young women had been killed in a “police encounter”, a term that has come to be regarded as a euphemism for extra-judicial murder.
As details trickled in, the news coverage exploded — with minute-by-minute updates, sound-bytes from celebrities and politicians across India largely saying “justice is served”, quotes from the victim’s family (“her soul is at peace”), quotes from the families of other victims (including Nirbhaya, Kathua, Unnao, “Pune techie”, Hajipur) saying they wished that they too could have experienced “justice” without “delay”; some urged the police to stage encounters for them too. This tide of news centred on public emotions largely drowned out the more thoughtful editorials and voices that argued that extrajudicial killings cannot be justified.
On social media, too, opinions were divided but it was clear to see where the majority’s sympathies rested. In an Indian Express article titled ‘Due process vs. instant justice’, Seema Chishti and Avishek Dastidar noted how the tone of some politicians had changed from concern over the killing to support for it. They quoted a Telangana BJP leader who said, “We began by being critical of the government since we are in the opposition but then realised we had to respond to public sentiment.”
This could well apply to the media, which not only shapes public opinion but is also shaped by it. By the evening of December 6, some top news channels in particular had proclaimed an ‘editorial’ stance on the subject. This was perhaps most explicitly expressed by Republic TV’s star anchor Arnab Goswami who opened his primetime ‘debate’ (watch it here) with a screeched, yet rather self-reflective, disclaimer:
“I don’t care if what happened in Hyderabad was the due process of law or not. I don’t care. I don’t give a damn for the due process of law. And I know that many of you think I should not say this. People will say, quote unquote, that Arnab has broken journalistic ethics. I don’t give a damn for those journalistic ethics then… I have no sympathy for the four rape-accused who were killed… they should have been killed much earlier.”
While this may be an extreme example, the media has in many instances discarded its role of a voice of reason and assumed the mantle of a conduit for catharsis. In this way it is serving as a mouthpiece for collective frustration and populist opinion that, ultimately, barely engages with the deeper issue of violence against women.
Further, the media’s overall framing and treatment of the gang-rape played into and heightened the public outrage over the case, even as it exerted greater pressure of the police to ‘act’. Here are, briefly, some problematic aspects of the hyper-coverage of the case that likely influenced not only the surge of public sentiment but the grisly outcome.
The matter of identity
The name and face of the Hyderabad victim were trending on social media with a #JusticeFor hashtag soon after news of her murder came out. When it emerged that she had been sexually assaulted, most (but not all) media houses removed her name and blurred her photographs with varying degrees of success, to comply with a law that prohibits the identification of sexual assault victims even after their death.
Days later, just as had been done in the Kathua case, the Delhi High Court got involved and issued a notice to the Centre on a plea seeking legal proceedings against media houses and individuals who disseminated information about the victim. The reason that the law exists is that sexual assault, more than other crimes, is traumatic and ‘stigmatising’ for a victim and her family. Now, there are quite compelling arguments that this kind of secrecy reinforces rather than addresses stigma and reduces victims to abstractions.
SECTIONS OF THE MEDIA REPRESENTED THE SUSPECTS AS MONSTROUS ENTITIES WHO WERE GETTING BETTER THAN THEY DESERVED IN JAIL — FOR INSTANCE, SOME REPORTERS WROTE THEY WERE “SHOCKED” THAT THE MEN WERE “SERVED MUTTON CURRY”
However, there was quite evidently a significant element of voyeurism and cynicism in how the media (and social media) utilised images of the victim, including photo montages of her smiling face and charred dead body. While the revelation of the victim’s identity may have helped galvanise public anger, it also turned her into a ‘poster child’ for a certain type of crime, and a certain type of victim, and made the violations done specifically to her the focal point of public and political attention, rather than the issue of sexual violence.
Whether her face was blurred or not, she is still referred to as the veterinarian doctor (thus, educated and ‘respectable’) who was violated by four lorry cleaners (very much in the ‘underclass’), one of them a Muslim — and which, therefore, unacceptably violated the strong boundaries of caste, class and religion in India. It is not surprising, then, that there were some attempts to communalise the case and to situate rape as something that is perpetrated by dangerous predators on the periphery of society.
While the mainstream media largely avoided taking part in this ‘communalisation’, it participated in the representation of the suspects as monstrous entities (via graphic descriptions of their alleged actions) who were getting better than they deserved in jail — for instance, some reports explicitly mentioned “shock” that the men were “served mutton curry” for dinner. Several newspapers and websites did interview the family members of the suspects and attempted to situate them in a context. However, in almost every such article, emphasis was given to calls for retributive justice from the suspects’ families, with headlines such as “hang him, he’s dead to me” and “hang, kill, or shoot him”. Those who proclaimed the innocence of their son featured less commonly or prominently.
In popular as well as judicial discourse, extreme acts of sexual violence that are perpetrated on ‘innocent’ victims by opportunistic ‘predators’ are viewed as especially heinous and as deserving of retributive justice, and this was very much in evidence in the Hyderabad case.
The Hyderabad police had their own way of dealing with the dissemination of the victim’s identity. Knowing the media’s love of a catchy nickname, especially post ‘Nirbhaya’ (which mans ‘fearless one’), they recommended that she henceforth be known as ‘Disha’, which means ‘direction’ or ‘guidance’. The rationale was that this nickname would inspire women in threatening situations to call the police right away, while also reminding officers to respond quickly to any complaint. Soon, #JusticeForDisha was trending on Twitter, and a section of the media adopted the sobriquet in its coverage of the case.
The use of such nicknames has already been subjected to much feminist critique. While it’s a quick way to elicit recall of a case, it foists values and attributes on victims without their consent, and situates some victims as martyrs and as ‘braver’ and ‘better’ than others. The specific name ‘Disha’ is also problematic because embedded in it is a cautionary tale: if women do not follow specific safety directions, they share responsibility in the crimes that happen to him. If the Hyderabad victim had followed the right ‘disha’, the message suggests, she might be alive today.
Interestingly, however, a vocal section of social media and the English-language press have been quick to call out the Hyderabad police for the victim-blaming sentiments inherent in its newly released list of safety measures for women, with one piece in HuffPost India even publishing a point by point ‘correction’ of the advisory.
A flawed ‘template’
Less critical attention has been devoted to the media’s frequent comparisons between the ‘Disha’ and ‘Nirbhaya’ cases. The repeated drawing of parallels between these two (out of thousands of recent cases) incidents is an example of a ‘media template’, which link certain events together and in so doing “filter out dissenting accounts, camouflage conflicting facts and promote one type of narrative”. These templates “provide the context for unfolding events, serve as foci for demands for policy change and inform the ways in which we make sense of the world”.
This is problematic because — unlike what dominant media narratives would have us believe — the Delhi and Hyderabad gang-rapes do not represent how sexual violence in India generally manifests. While recently released statistics show that 93 per cent of reported rapes are not committed by strangers, the most prominent media representations of sexual assault might have us believe the opposite. The archetypal rapist in such cases is a drunken, disenfranchised and loutish youth (or youths) lurking in the darkness to unleash barbarities on a young, urban, ‘innocent’ woman (as opposed to one who is raped by a man friend or lover). These media constructions serve to invoke rage and fear, while also allowing the public to distance themselves from sexual assault as something that happens to ‘others’ by even more other ‘others’ due to a terrible turn of luck.
UNLIKE WHAT DOMINANT MEDIA NARRATIVES WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE — THE DELHI AND HYDERABAD GANG-RAPES DO NOT REPRESENT HOW SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN INDIA GENERALLY MANIFESTS
This feeds into the discourse around ‘justice’ as well, particularly the death penalty. Prior to the encounter, there were numerous stories on how the convicts in the Nirbhaya case have not yet been hanged, and that this forebode a similar outcome in the Hyderabad case. Reports such as this elicited (understandable) frustration with the snail-like pace of the judicial system and the sense that justice was not truly done even after sentencing; ironically, this is peculiar of cases of capital punishment, where a conviction alone is not seen as ‘satisfying’ enough.
At times, the push for capital punishment took a subtler, more indirect form. Nirbhaya’s mother, an impassioned advocate for the death penalty, was quoted frequently, with her anger over her daughter’s killers still being alive being filtered to the public.
While there were valiant attempts by some sections of the news media to critique rape culture and what actually ails the justice system in India (delays in investigations, an overburdened court system, low conviction rates to name a few), several popular news anchors openly called for the ‘devils’ to be hanged until death, as mentioned earlier.
Gaps in coverage
There was a predictable spike in the coverage of sexual assault cases after the Hyderabad incident, especially those that involved elements that fit into the existing narrative. So, we had ‘Disha’ being called ‘Hyderabad’s Nirbhaya’, and the recent Unnao case being referred to as ‘Hyderabad replay’. However, the gaps in coverage are plain to see. For example, just days before the Hyderabad case, another woman in rural Telangana was gang-raped and murdered as she went about her day. Her story got little to no media attention, forcing her family to piggy-back on the vet case and highlight the ‘bias’ against them to get their story told. While this case has now got limited national coverage, it simply has the wrong ingredients, having taken place in rural India and involving a poor Dalit victim and known offenders. Thus, when a case gets major coverage, it is even more important to interrogate which ones do not.
The problem with ‘catharsis’
While the coverage of the gang-rape was largely an homage to public frustration over the justice system, the reporting on the encounter killings framed it as a moment of catharsis and relief. Someone had paid the price, never mind that they had not yet been found guilty.
Even though all media houses did not adopt an overt stance in support of the ‘encounter’, the steady stream of reports on deceased victims’ families lauding the encounter served to validate it as an appropriate response to the crime. There were also national newspaper headlines that referred to the killings as “justice” even though no judicial process had been followed.
THE DISCOURSE AROUND RAPE AND THE DEATH PENALTY WAS MADE HIGHLY PERSONAL AND ‘RELATABLE’, WHILE THAT AROUND ‘DUE PROCESS’ WAS MORE INTELLECTUAL AND ABSTRACT
While dozens of print editorials mulled at length about the need for due process, there was very limited attempt to frame the encounter in concrete terms that may have resonated more with the public. For example, very few attempts were made to reference recent high-profile miscarriages of justice — like the false confession of a bus cleaner in the murder of a Grade 1 student at a posh school in Haryana. In this sense, the discourse around rape and the death penalty was made highly personal and ‘relatable’, while that around ‘due process’ was more intellectual and abstract.
Finally, it is worth remembering what feminist social psychologist Carol Tavris concluded back in her 1988 review of research on violence in media: “It is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or ‘ventilating it’) gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research.”
On the brighter side
In practical terms, the coverage of the Hyderabad case generated more awareness about public safety and policy issues that directly impact women.
This includes a slew of articles about women’s right to file ‘Zero FIRs’ , and why police personnel cannot turn away any complainant on the basis of wrong jurisdiction. While the past few years have seen many cases of women wanting to file rape cases being turned away by the police, it has taken this case to widely publicise that this is unlawful. The increased media attention on this as well as on other necessary reforms in the police machinery in general is an encouraging shift in the direction of coverage.
Further, even as a large part of the coverage played on powerful emotions — from rage to a feeling of catharsis — a substantial section of the media have engaged meaningfully with the systemic problems in India’s law and order machinery, and on the reforms and social re-set that are necessary to not only lower the incidence of rape but to shift the public’s rose-tinted perception of extrajudicial ‘justice’.