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Is media coverage of rape cases doing more harm than good?

By: Saher Baloch

Karachi: Does the media tend to “overdo it” at times when reporting rape cases and inadvertently complicate matters or is its overenthusiastic approach necessary to bring the bane into the spotlight? The debate will rage on as more and more rape cases are reported in the country.

Some of the people directly dealing with rape cases believe that the hype created by the media makes their job harder and affects the survivors of the atrocity more than anyone else.

“Either the media doesn’t take up an issue, or it is an all-out battle to get the most television rating points or print space,” said Dr Kaleem Sheikh, a senior medico-legal officer (MLO) at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC).

Giving an example, the MLO said once a girl’s family was hounded by a reporter to the extent that they had to change their contact numbers. “We suffered as a result, as she left the examination process midway, and we didn’t hear from her again,” he added.
He pointed out that in some cases, the name, age and even address of a rape survivor were clearly mentioned in a news story. “Given the kind of threats and backlash the families have to face in a society like ours, this can have dire consequences, where honour becomes a sensitive issue to deal with,” Dr Sheikh elaborated.

Sara Zaman of the War Against Rape (WAR) said she partially endorses this view as first the media is usually “insensitive” when it comes to reporting cases of sexual assault and secondly, the whole focus is on what happened and to whom, rather than pointing out the systemic issues that persistently block any progress on such issues.

“It ends up affecting the outcome of these cases rather than helping anyone,” she added.Explaining further, she gave the example of a 2010 rape case involving a JPMC nurse that went awry because it appeared as if the entire media had descended on the hospital.

“There were too many details about that case which popped out but no one wrote or spoke about it. The focus was more on whether the nurse was gang-raped or not instead of why a man with a dubious character was allowed to stay on hospital property for so long,” she noted.

But Zaman also thinks that the furore created by the media does bring the issue to the limelight, but “in a sporadic manner”, even though sexual assault cases lose steam after a while.On the other hand, a police official blames the poor investigation process as one of the reasons that “discourage” people from having rape cases registered.

Deputy Inspector General East Tahir Naveed said the recent case he had to deal with was that of a minor girl whose decapitated body was found near the limits of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal police station. “We die a bit every day when we have to face such cases. But what pains us more is that there is no quality investigation through which we can get to the culprits and punish them,” he added.

Explaining what basically affects the process, he said during his stint as a trainer a few years back, most of his officers confessed to him that they were reluctant to ask questions while investigating rape cases.

“They would rather prefer dealing with a bullet-riddled body than talking to a woman they feel shy speaking to. That’s the reason they act tough or insolent at times,” he candidly said, adding that the training of officers in this regard remained a “distant dream” as it was spoken about more than acted upon in reality.

Though the police continue to be blamed for everything that goes wrong, the medico-legal branch of investigation remains the most backward among all, with no proper staff or facilities to examine the swabs taken for medical examination after rape.
While the initial perception is the fear of police and the stigma attached to speaking about rape cases, a study by WAR indicates that 25 percent of rape cases are not pursued because “facts are misreported by the media or the family”.

In the last five months, the JPMC has received 26 rape cases to be examined at the hospital. MLOs believe the number to be three times more than what is being reported and referred to them.

“Rape is the only offence that is not compoundable,” said Dr Sheikh, “which makes it the most difficult of cases to deal with, as the accused party usually tries very hard to tamper with the evidence that could easily land them in prison for life.”

The latest positive development, the doctor said, is the DNA test facility that “solves the case within days now”.But the facility is available in Islamabad and blood samples and other swabs are sent there, taking a minimum of 12 days to complete the process.

Dr Sheikh said the Aga Khan Hospital is so far the only medical facility in Karachi where a DNA test can be conducted, but its management avoids getting involved in legal cases.Zaman said it all adds up to properly implementing the law. “We have superb laws regarding almost everything. But there is no efficacy. If that is taken seriously, then all this debate has a chance of not going useless.”

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