Years ago, loose gravel on a trail up Margalla Hills landed me in the emergency room with a sprained ankle. All I remember at the time was the excruciating pain radiating from my ankle and worrying if it was broken and whether I’d be able catch a plane on time to return to university. My mother and I were waiting for the doctor to finally see us when we heard a commotion in the main foyer. A muffled siren could be heard just outside and medical personnel whizzed by us, yelling orders, but even they couldn’t drown out the choked wails of several women who had gathered nearby. Curious and petrified in equal amounts, we watched as a little girl was wheeled into a nearby alcove, whimpering and shuffling under a yellowing sheet that covered much of her body. Only when the crowd started to disperse did my mother ask a passing aide about the commotion. She leaned in, face weary, and whispered that ever dreadful word: rape. We were stunned.
The horrific tale of this child never made the news. Then again, it was 1998, a time when incidences of violence against women and children were only occasionally reported in print editions of national newspapers. Recently, a five-year-old girl from a low-income neighborhood in Lahore was sexually assaulted and left outside a hospital in critical condition. This time around, however, news outlets were abuzz with the story and the media hype was overwhelming, thanks to the internet and the 24 hour news cycle. It is a definite change from years past when the only TV channel was the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), largely considered an extension of the government pulpit.
The era of purported “enlightened moderation” under former President Musharraf, coupled with the electronic media boom in 2002, saw an emergence of a number of private TV stations that provided audiences with additional news content, thereby providing a modicum of balance and neutrality to Pakistan’s news industry. Also on the agenda of various current affairs programming were attempts to address a number of socio-economic issues including crime and incidences of violence against women and children. Unfortunately, however, prevailing trends in the media’s treatment of female survivors of rape suggest levels of bias in addition to being exploitive in nature. This is partly evident in the news coverage of the aforementioned five-year old; CCTV footage of the girl being dropped off at the hospital by her alleged attacker(s) – no one has been formally charged – was played ad nauseam on TV channels. Additionally, the young survivor’s name was revealed (in addition to her face) and those of her family members thereby violating an unwritten code of ethics in the media industry when reporting about victims of sexual crime – particularly those so young. [Read more...]