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Media Reporting and Rape Culture

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The year 2020 has consistently put spotlight on the shameful fact that not only does Pakistan remain unsafe for women, but also that the reporting channels need to rethink on how to cover rape, sexual assault and other incidents of gender-based violence.

When such criminal acts are neglected by the society, it is the media organizations job to report cases responsibly so that it instils a feeling of outrage amongst the masses and the realization to invoke pressure on the government to erase such heinous crimes that exists. In the first 60 days of 2020, as many as 73 incidents of rape were reported, including 5 gang-rape cases in Lahore. While most of these cases don’t make it to social media, pages or headlines of media organizations, the ones that manage to get attention are poorly reported.

The irony is that they are not raped just once, the media rapes them multiple times. In a patriarchal society, male-dominated institutions and lack of journalism ethics lead to loopholes in covering sensitive cases like rape by media. It is not uncommon for an implicit account of victim blaming to make its way into news report.

A decade ago, a young woman driving home, accompanied by friend, was raped and left by the side of the road in Karachi. Phrases thrown by journalists all over media were ‘late at night’, ‘returning from a party’ and ‘unaccompanied by a man’. This was followed by Advisor to the Chief Minister of Sindh, Sharmila Farooqui’s victim blaming statement on a live talk-show. When these phrases are attached to woman, a woman in trauma trying to gain her consciousness back who is to report the crime, these statements and headlines define how the crime will be covered by the media and who will carry the blame for it.

The details of the Lahore Motorway rape case were just as horrifying, as the media posted similar questions. Earlier this year, on September 9, a mother was robbed and gang-raped in front of her three children on Lahore motorway, shocked the entire nation. Videos and pictures of victim’s car, statements about the woman’s personal life and choice of route became a hot topic for debate on national television. The most senior police official in Lahore, CCPO Umer Sheikhs victim blaming statement stirred an outcry by masses and became the highlight of discussions for talk-shows. Despite the outrage against CCPO’s statement, PM’s Advisor on Accountability Shahzad Akhtar defended it. For more than 2 months, on national television talk-shows were debating on ‘why the victim had not taken a busier route’, given that she was alone with her children, ‘why she decided to travel late at night in the first place’, or ‘why she did not check her fuel before departing’.

It is important to realize the difference between reporting relevant details of a rape case and exaggerating unrelated statements for high ratings. Research on the depiction of rape and gender-based violence coverage by media globally shows ways in which media reports sensationalize sexual violence by giving a distorted view of its incidence and nature. While these details are irrelevant to the alleged assault since none of them contribute to the investigation of this heinous crime, all they do is contribute to victim shaming attitudes or imply that the victim ‘had it coming’.

When there is more rape culture in the news, there is more rape.            The ever-increasing number of rape cases reflect the unfortunate culture of rape we are living in, rather than safe private or public spaces. This rape culture is not just about the crime itself, it’s about a culture in which women are objectified.

Rape culture and male-oriented institutions are not limited to Pakistan. According to a study from 2018, titled ‘Does Rape Culture Predict Rape? Evidence from U.S. Newspapers, 2000-2013’, when the tone of the coverage and statements used can be interpreted as victim blaming and an empathetic attitude towards the accused, rape occurs more often. The research finds correlation media coverage and number of sexual assault cases, it does not suggest that media reporting causes rape, but that it reflects the society norms towards sexual assault. The study found that there is more occurrence of rape in communities where media keeps the rape culture alive. While it may be difficult to measure, authors of the above-mentioned study identified four components that are characteristics of rape culture – implying survivor’s consent, victim blaming, questioning victim credibility and empathy for the accused.

Another loophole adding to faulty media reporting is not having a local word for rape and rather replacing the word rape with ‘ziyadti’, ‘zabardasti’, ‘izzat’ and so on. Such terms cannot help in framing and understanding exactly what happened, they are open ended. Whether it’s a reporter or a survivor of rape, there is no local vocabulary to inquire or report about the rape. As words like ‘zabardasti’ can simply not justify the trauma of a rape victim. Unfortunately, this is deep rooted in our society, using the word rape out loud raises more voices and concerns then the crime itself. While we don’t fall back in accepting every new term in our lexicon, the hesitation towards the word rape further strengthens the stigma attached to it.

Way forward and change.     Having more women in newsrooms and talk shows, writing and reporting on such cases makes a huge difference. So far, the little progress some media fronts have made, globally as well in Pakistan, is due to more involvement of women. The way Fareeha Idrees covered the Lahore Motorway rape case is how every case must be handled on media. Media institutions need to train reporters and journalists on how to report on any type of sexual violence or trauma. The cases need to be built and reported around anonymity of survivors. Rather than making the background and personal life of the victim the highlight of newsroom discussions, they should highlight the alleged perpetrator, talk about lack of consent and accountability- only then there would be evidence of rape culture in media reporting. The ignorance towards rape culture leads police and law enforcement to be less inclined in investigating, making the victim’s case weak, and once again showing empathy towards the perpetrator. The statement given by the senior police official on Lahore Motorway rape case is a prime example. It simply shows lack of interest and ignorance by protectors of the society, giving a sense of freedom to potential rapists and discouraging victims to come forward. Pakistan ranks 164/167 on the Women Peace and Security Index (2019/2020), every two hours a woman is raped in somewhere in this country. It’s high time we as a society change – from media institutions to households, from an influential gatekeeper to every individual at the receiving end.

Every year a horrifying rape case makes a headline, every year it’s followed by news about helplines, laws/bills, NGO’s taking actions and so on, but the cases keep on increasing. It’s our failure as a society. We must talk about implementation of laws passed and the legal systems accountability, the need for police reforms and training towards handling sensitive cases, and trauma of all forms of sexual violence. Only with such steps can we transform our society into a safe place for all genders and erase the rape culture with the help of media.