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Journalistic ethics: How the media traumatises rape victims

By Zehra Abid

The reporting of rape is far short of proper standards.

KARACHI: Sex sells. Sensational stories on sex crimes sell even better. And in the alleged gang-rape case of Uzma Ayub, the Pakistani media seems to have truly set up shop.

The 17-year-old victim has been hounded by journalists from her house to her hospital bed, narrating her experiences of abduction and gang-rape to reporters and millions of viewers across the globe – again and again.

What the family first saw as a means of getting justice, has come back to bite them. “No reporter has ever sought permission to enter our house. It is disgraceful,” said her 18-year-old brother Zafran, who was too disconcerted by journalists to comment any further.

The alleged rape victim from Karak has accused 13 men, including police officers and an army solider, of abduction and gang-rape. After 13 months in custody, the teenage girl returned home pregnant. Her brother Alamzeb, who was an active advocate for his sister’s rights, was shot dead outside a district court in Karak on December 9.

Now Zafran handles the media, juggling consistent calls from reporters between his newfound family responsibilities and studies.

Television channels were most intrusive the day Uzma gave birth to her child. Almost all news channels showed images of the mother and the newborn girl. But what was most atrocious was when hours after the delivery, a reporter from ARY News managed to get inside the hospital room and asked the alleged rape victim how she felt about her child being taken away by an NGO, if Uzma was sure the baby belonged to her and whether she was happy about her birth.

In a frail voice, the 17-year-old mother, lying on a bed with a veil on her face and the newborn next to her, answered all questions live on national television.

Reporter Shazia Nasir sees the January 20 interview as part of the game. “It is completely unethical to ask such questions, but there is too much pressure on reporters to get the story. If I would not have done it, Express News or GEO would have.”

The excessive media coverage has made the victim an object of judgement. “In the case of Uzma Ayub, the victim has been blamed since the beginning,” said Human Rights Chairperson Zohra Yusuf.

Women’s Rights activist Fouzia Saeed questions why there are different rules for victims and the accused. “If the media names rape victims and shows their pictures, they should do the same for the accused,” she said, adding “Giving intimate details about rape victims only allows people to discuss her further.”

While some feminist thinkers and legal experts believe it is a victim’s discretion to be identified, Tasneem Ahmar, director of Uks, an organisation that oversees the media’s coverage on women, says it is not fair to put people in the limelight without making them understand the consequences of doing so. “People are not really aware of what it means to expose their identity and need to be trained to deal with reporters. It is not fair to throw a person in front of the media just because it makes a good story.”

“The way Uzma Ayub’s case was reported gave the story a very different twist, starting another blame-game. We have done many trainings for journalists on how to report such cases, but when it comes to the ‘breaking news’ bandwagon, nobody gives two hoots about anything,” she said, adding that all television channels need to sit together and work out a way to control such reporting.

Advocate Javed Burqi, who fought on gang-rape victim Kainat Soomro’s behalf, says it is both unethical and illegal to identify rape victims in the media. “One of the fundamental rights provided by the Constitution is the right to privacy. As the Fourth Estate, the media must respect the Constitution.”

Burqi said that journalists need to understand that it causes “immeasurable psychological trauma” to a victim when she sees her face across television channels and newspapers.

There are also trickle-down effects of irresponsible reporting. “Many rape victims withdraw their cases if they are too pressurised by the media and NGOs,” said Sarah Zaman, director of a non-governmental organisation War Against Rape. According to the HRCP’s annual report last year, 2,903 women – almost eight a day – were raped in 2010, a figure which is rarely reflected in coverage of rape cases in the media.

Source: The Express Tribune