On Sexual Violence and Media Portrayal in Pakistan

On Sexual Violence and Media Portrayal in Pakistan November 6, 2013

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.  

Let me preface this by saying that media plays an important role in shaping mindsets of readers and viewers.  Reporting on such incidences also contributes to a sense of awareness about such crimes in a country where rape and violence is heavily stigmatized.  Additionally, Pakistani media is largely sympathetic to the victim’s plight and the over-the-top reporting can also be construed as a knew-jerk reaction to a horrified public’s want for justice.

The Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) issued a statement recently, appealing to the media “not to overplay the issue of a five-year-old rape victim.”  They also asked political parties not to politicize the issue by visiting the girl and criticized media outlets for disclosing her identity.  In “Covering Crime: How Pakistan Media Reports on Rape Cases”, a key report by Uks, a media advocacy and monitoring organization based in Islamabad,  “women are first victimized by their perpetrators and then again by the media in large when they report in this exploitive manner” (p.34).  The Uks report uses six case studies that received considerable media coverage over the past decade to highlight the extent to which survivors of sexual violence are unnecessarily and irresponsibly scrutinized and therefore subject to a “second round” of violence.  The report also addresses the failure of the media to “offer linkages,” thereby treating every case as “an individual act of aggression”.  Socio-cultural norms as they relate to women’s role in society or systemic indifference of the police and courts during legal redress are not fully addressed.

It bears mention that, as vulnerable members of society (by virtue of their socio-economic standing) women and children are subject to incidences of violence, exploitation and harassment.  According to 2012 report by the Aurat Foundation (AF), in the first six months of 2012, a total of 4,585 cases of violence against women (VAW) were reported in the media across Pakistan.  AF defines violence against women as any act or threat of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in, physical or psychological harm or suffering to women, including coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Incidences of reported cases of violence against women reported in 2012 had increased by 7 per cent from the year before, with the majority of the cases (approximately 59 percent) of victims below 18 years of age – making young Pakistani girls the most susceptible to such violence.  Thirty one per cent were 19-36 years old and the remaining 9 percent were over 36 years of age.  Additionally, Madadgaar National Helpline says that from January to October 2012, as many as 5,659 cases of violence against children were recorded in Pakistan, of which 407 were cases of sexual assault.  Both Aurat Foundation and Madadgar National Helpline also add that many cases of assault still go unreported.

In addition to incidences of violence against their person, women also have to contend with the possibility of being sexually harassed in public spaces.  While such “bullying” seldom makes the news, it is offensive, intimidating and creates hostile work environments.  It is also undeniably linked to socio-cultural norms which dictate women’s role in society and when combined with an entrenched patriarchal system, leads to unequal treatment of women.  Pakistani workforce has yet to catch up with legislation that is meant to provide women with a safe working environment.  Despite having made sexual harassment punishable by law – amending section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code and signing of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill in 2010 (a code of conduct to address harassment incidences at the work place) – implementation is weak and provisional data suggests that sexual harassment is still a formidable challenge, particularly for nurses and domestic workers.

I realize now that the medical aide should never have told us what happened to that little girl in the emergency room (additionally, we shouldn’t even have asked).  Her professional response should have been, “I’m sorry we cannot release such information to the public.”  But awareness of this code of ethics that underscores the need to protect and support survivors of such violence in a public setting requires training and informing all those who come in contact with them, and especially those in the media who have the power to influence opinion and sway judgement.   So far, Uks, along with several key members of civil society has taken the all-important step to provide gender-sensitive code-of-ethics for print media in Pakistan.  In the long run, the media can play an essential role in “minimizing harm” to survivors of such crimes.

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