Media ethics and rape: Have a heart!

Published: September 23, 2012
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The more gruesome details he can get his hands on, the better. I know it sounds horrible but it spices up the story. DESIGN: ERUM SHAIKH

Every other day our crime reporter says,

Aray, yahan rape hua hai.

(Hey, there’s been a rape at this place.)

or,

Ek aurat ka Saddar mein murder hua hai, story chahiye?

(A woman’s been murdered in Saddar. Want a story on that?)

We don’t even stop and think twice before asking,

Nahi, is mein naya kya hai? Mazay ka murder tha?Koi weird detail pata chali?”

(No, what’s new in that? Was there something cool about the murder? Did you find out any weird details?)

The more gruesome details he can get his hands on, the better. I know it sounds horrible but it spices up the story. For example, there was a case a couple of months ago of the alleged Patel Para serial killer. A man was killing women from a lower middle class background and leaving their chopped up bodies around the city – usually in a three part series.

There were three things which made the police suspect it was the same man – the words ‘phone call’, ‘Quaid-e-Azam’s mausoleum’ and ‘Patel Para’. The bodies were cut in a similar way and left in the same area. The Soldier Bazaar police or people from the neighbourhood usually just found the pieces randomly in the trash or under a tree.

When our junior crime reporter went to the morgue to see the bodies, she came back with details like how the flesh was sliced from the bone or how one woman’s breasts were delicately cut and left on a board for an examination. Obviously, these details didn’t make it to the page. The story was toned down quite a bit and I was disappointed.

However, after attending a workshop on ‘powerful women, powerful nation’ by Uks, a non-governmental organisation specialising in research on gender equality and women development last week, I felt like I was either an insensitive jerk or there was no way to report on such issues.

A rape case or murder case is very clinically reported. You have the name, place, time, whodunit and then what the police or family have to say.

In a woman’s case, the police will immediately jump to the conclusion that the woman had a ‘loose character’. I kid you not.

They will drag her name through dirt and use derogatory terms which will indirectly comment on her lifestyle – but this is just in English papers, in Urdu and regional papers it is worse. At the seminar I also learnt that sometimes in Urdu newspapers, women and girls were referred to as titliyan (butterflies).

During the two day workshop, the director of Uks, Tasneem Ahmar, showed us newspaper clippings of two cases – Nina Aziz murder case and the Veena Hayat rape case. Both high-profile cases took the media by storm as one involved a British diplomat and the other one pointed fingers at a former president’s son-in-law.

In the late 1980s Nina Aziz’s headless body was found in a wardrobe in her house. Her head was found three days later in one of Islamabad’s greenbelts. The police claimed that her servant did it. The newspapers had a field day. An English daily published the story and basically said that Aziz, who was living alone in a house and working for a multinational company, was a ‘bad’ girl.

A report claimed that Aziz was too western – even though her parents lived in the same city, she preferred to live by herself, used to entertain men and was ‘liberal’. One of the many reports which maligned her character also mentioned that a ‘used condom’ was found in her room.

Interestingly enough, the day Aziz’s body was found, a man was murdered by his wife. She wanted to marry another man. It was a big case since the man was quite influential but only 150 or so words were written about his murder.

Then we have the Veena Hayat case. It was all anyone could talk about in 1991. She was the daughter of Sardar Shaukat Hayat, a prominent member of the All India Muslim League, and one of her best friends was former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. As expected, the case became political within minutes. There were two other cases which got the limelight because of Hayat’s case, Khursheed Begum and Rahila Tiwana, a Pakistan Peoples Party student activist. All three women were connected with PPP in one way or another.

Things got messier as the CIA became involved – the rape survivors claimed that the agency wanted them to make false statements and implicate Benazir and her husband. All three cases took place in Karachi. Hayat’s father who held a press conference two weeks after she was gang-raped was very certain that she was raped because of her friendship with Benazir, who had been sent packing the year before.

Some of the reports I read about the rape did not make sense to me. Hayat’s social position, her friendship with Benazir and her divorce seemed to be more important than what happened to her.

I suppose the media was unprepared to deal with these stories. When Tiwana was interviewed by The News, she was asked to go into details about the rape. Since their rape cases became political, these women received a different sort of coverage. In the pro-government side of the print media, it was defamatory; in the relatively liberal sector, they tried to tone it down but I guess it must have been difficult.

Mukhtaran Mai ─ who was gang-raped and had to parade around her village naked after a jirga decided that she had to pay for her brother’s ‘sins’ ─ is another case where the print and electronic media went haywire.

Her story was repeated, embellished, and was all over the place. Television show hosts asked her to come to their shows and pretty much humiliated her by implying that she was making it up. The former president’s statements about women ‘getting’ raped for foreign nationalities didn’t help either.

If a reporter files a rape story today, we are told to remove the name of the woman or girl to make sure her identity is protected in every possible way. Maybe it’s to avoid the media circus that their lives could become – looking at how such cases are covered in the media, print or electronic.

Maybe we should just not write about it till we’re sure we won’t judge or break down and cry.

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Tooba Masood

Tooba Masood

A senior sub-editor on the Peshawar Desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @tabahitooba (twitter.com/tabahitooba)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.