Comment: Rape and the Indian media

Amritha John - International Reporter 24 January 2013

On December 16, a 23-year-old woman and her male friend were brutally attacked on a bus in New Delhi. The woman was violently gang raped and died from her wounds a few days later. The reaction was swift – furious public protests, televised audience-driven debates and a resolution to never forget and never accept. A month later I read a headline that contained the phrase “new Indian ‘bus rape'”. Again a young girl had stepped onto a bus, this time in rural Punjab, and had been gang raped. But when I talked to my family in India, none of them had even heard about it.

I believe it was the graphically recounted nature of the first attack that captured public attention – not the fact of rape itself. Indeed, there must at times be a temptation for media bodies to channel the voice of the people without interrogating it. I believe the Indian media fell into this trap last December. For instance, when NDTV’s Barkha Dutt, a prominent anchor on a widely watched English news channel, interviewed Delhi’s Chief Minister, she stridently implored her to sit down with the people at India Gate and join the protests, voicing commonly-held frustration at an elite, indifferent political establishment. But I wonder if this is the media’s place – to become a loudspeaker for the fury of the nation. Doesn’t the word “media” itself imply mediation between the public and the source of news?

The media’s conduct has a serious impact upon the way the Indian public regards rape. The risks are twofold if the media, like the public, focuses on being the mouthpieces of understandably emotional reactions. One is that people themselves forget to look beyond the gory, moving details of a crime, to consider the fact of rape per se as deviant and gruesome in itself. The other is that emotional reactions are less lasting than intellectually-based ones. Because there isn’t enough consistent and rigorous discussion of the epidemic of rape as a whole that sweeps India, public reaction moves periodically from a base level of reluctant acceptance to impermanent peaks of collective anguish. If this doesn’t change, I fear more girls will be presented in Indian news as victims of a “second” rape.

Amritha John – International Reporter