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What Khurshid Anwar's suicide should tell the media

By Seema Mustafa
December 19, 2013 16:56 IST
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Khurshid AnwarIt is absolutely essential to prevent an atmosphere of trial and execution from being created on the larger issue of sexual assault, so that there can be a dispassionate understanding of every case, instead of irresponsible outpourings on television channels run by unaccountable anchors, says Seema Mustafa.

The tragic death of Khurshid Anwar, who committed suicide following charges of rape, really serves to act as a brake on the media and some activists’ tendency to speed off with an issue that should be tackled with sensitivity and evidence.

It is absolutely essential to prevent an atmosphere of trial and execution from being created on the larger issue of sexual assault, so that there can be a dispassionate understanding of every case, instead of irresponsible outpourings on television channels run by unaccountable anchors.

Anwar, who ran the NGO Institute for Social Democracy, was a well-known activist in Delhi circles. Those acquainted with his quiet and pleasing personality can vouch for his character and they have been pointing out ever since his death that in his 50 odd years he was never accused of any untoward behaviour towards women colleagues, let alone rape that he is being charged with.

The decision to allow a drunk and unwell colleague to stay over at night on a September evening, came back to haunt him months after when the girl tied up with a shrill woman activist, who has never found anything criminal in the rape of women in Gujarat in 2002, to leak the story to the media. Within minutes the media trial began, and the final straw it seems was when a television news channel known for turning truth into fiction, and lies into the truth, apparently did a show vilifying Anwar.

Unable to cope he killed himself by jumping off the building he lived in. He did not leave a suicide note but the police have found a diary in which he has written of his complete innocence, and how he was being framed by motivated rivals. All this without even an FIR being filed!

The pendulum for us, and in particular the media, is never stable. It swings from side to side. So from ignoring and further victimising women complaining of sexual assault, the pendulum now favours a certain trigger-happiness in rushing to try and ‘execute’ the alleged assaulter without bothering to gather evidence, or study the case with the sobriety and reason it deserves. Cry ‘rape’ and journalists rush with the story in their competitive desire to be first off the block. As in Anwar’s case where they pronounced him guilty without even bothering to find out if there was a registered FIR, and what was his reputation in society. Perhaps if they had done either or both, and lowered the levels of hysteria, Anwar would have still been alive today.

Selective feminists of the kind who rendered dubious advise to the girl should realise the damage they do to the larger cause. The sympathy and response that the women’s movement has virtually extracted from apathetic and indeed hostile society after the Delhi rape case for instance, stands in danger of being diluted with every such evidence of irresponsibility and unaccountability.

It feeds into the argument that had earlier prevented the pendulum from moving, that women cannot be relied on, they are liars, and they just want to frame innocent men. It gives credence to the arguments of the likes of Jammu and Kashmir’s Farooq Abdullah that men should not employ women in their offices. It allows sexual exploiters to get back the system whereby their crimes remain unreported, and their targets continue to suffer in silence.

The media is equally, if not more, to blame as its coverage of alleged rape cases demonstrates over and over again. The almost voyeuristic coverage of such cases sensationalises the crime, with the black and white approach identifying and pillorying the accused.

The absurd preoccupation with sensationalising such news was evident in the Tarun Tejpal case, with the disproportionate coverage extended to days and even weeks of the incident. It was as if all other news -- even rapes -- had come to a standstill for the 24 hour news channels that could find no other issues to report about.

The effort should be, of both society and its media, to ensure that the system becomes highly sensitive and responsive to crime against women; that FIRs are lodged immediately; medical help made available fast; investigation conducted with sobriety and empathy; quick action taken; cases tried speedily in courts; in short justice dispensed quickly and fairly with the victim given full protection under the law.

The effort should not be, as it has become, to use the crime to sensationalise the issue, to pillory the accused without a trial, to hang him without a verdict, and to create an atmosphere where the pendulum of justice swings from one end to the other in a hysterical and completely unpredictable fashion.

One wonders what that television anchor and that so called feminists have to say now, and whether they have at all understood the extent of their complicity in Anwar’s tragic death. Surely this is not what the media is here for, and is it not time for the media itself to clamp down serious restrictions on itself?

There should also be restrictions placed on the manner of reporting, the detailed and sometimes bordering-on-the-perverted kind of reportage of rape cases with explicit details that do not really contribute to the story, so that the norms of journalistic ethics and decency are observed. This preoccupation with sordid details of a horrible crime is clearly to attract viewership, and through it advertisements.

Journalism seems to have crossed all barriers of decency in its coverage of sexual exploitation of women, moving from the responsible to the crass and crude world of un-accountability. Someone has to bell this ugly cat, but so far that ‘someone’ is still not visible.

Image courtesy: Facebook

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Seema Mustafa