Is Media Coverage of the Gang Rape in India Helping or Hurting the Family?

As dozens of journalists arrive in the nondescript village in north India, there’s growing concern about the impact of media intrusion on the victim’s family.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, India
October 7, 2020, 12:04pm
hathras, gang rape, india, Uttar Pradesh, death
Victim's mother fields questions from journalists inside her house in Hathras district of north India's Uttar Pradesh state. Photo by Arpita De and Akshay Nair/ Vice World News  

HATHRAS, India—On usual days, the Valmikis of the northern Indian district of Hathras, in Uttar Pradesh state, wake up at 7 a.m. to head to the farms. 

Over the last fortnight or so, that schedule has been completely disrupted. Now their day starts with the media streaming in. “They usually turn up around 8 a.m.,” a relative of the Valmiki family that resides in this two-bedroom home, told VICE News. 

As the sun comes up on this idyllic pocket of the north Indian hinterlands, the calm and silence is not broken by the usual cacophony of the rooster crowing or the hustle of the women and men on their farms. Instead, there is noise of live news bytes and camera crew setting up. 

Last month, a 19-year-old woman belonging to this family was brutally tortured and allegedly gang raped by four members of the upper-caste Thakur family. 

The woman died in a hospital in New Delhi on September 29, around two weeks after she was violated. 

Valkimis are members of the Dalit community, considered lowest in the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system. 

Valmikis are not considered equals by the Thakurs. Untouchability, banned by the Indian law, is freely practiced on the Dalits in everyday life in various shapes and forms. 

State police have arrested all four accused in the case. Five police personnel have been suspended for their handling of the case. 

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Journalists jostle for space in the inner courtyard of the house of the victim's family in a village in Uttar Pradesh state's Hathras district. Photo by Arpita De and Akshay Nair/ Vice World News

The state police rushed to cremate the body of the victim without the permission of the family. The woman’s death and the state authorities’ response has fuelled intense protests across India demanding an end to the endemic caste violence. Many compare it to the protests in the United States that demands an end to systemic oppression and marginalisation of the Blacks. 

At the same time, there’s an active attempt to cover up the gang rape and caste-based discrimination. State police have also called the public outrage and media coverage an “international plot” to defame and destabilise the state government.

While the protests have erupted across the country, and even abroad, in Hathras, the anguish begins at the Valmiki family’s courtyard. Every day, scores of journalists, political leaders, activists and even lawyers offering pro bono services descend upon the doorsteps of the victim’s family. About a kilometre away, at the village entrance, state police have put up barricades to prevent people, except journalists, from filtering in. 

Over the weekend, the state authorities sealed the village entrance and prohibited gathering of more than five persons. Early this week, the media was finally let in. Since then, the media barrage has intensified. 

It’s not everyday that a story of violence and discrimination against a marginalised community gains such extensive national and international coverage. But it’s clear what the onslaught of journalists jostling for quotes or space in their homes is doing to them. 

“We barely eat the whole day,” one of the victim’s aunts, told VICE News. “The moment the media comes in, we don’t get time for ourselves.”

Several television news channels are driving alternative narratives of the incident. News anchors were seen shoving their mics on the family members, asking them why they didn’t act fast enough, or why they’re not keen on an investigation. Day after the woman’s death, some TV channels are asking her family if it was  a case of honour killing

It’s only around the evenings that the family get some time to cook and eat—their first in the day. “Our child’s parents almost fainted during one of the interviews because of exhaustion,” said the victim's aunt. 

While the immediate family of the woman field journalists, activists and other political visits, members of the extended family are here to help them with household chores. 

Amid dozens of journalists arriving in the nondescript village in Hathras, there’s growing concern about the impact of media intrusion on the victim’s family. “This kind of journalism does not help anyone,” Kalpana Sharma, Mumbai-based senior journalist and media columnist, told VICE News. “Media has to introspect the manner in which they invade the privacy of anyone who is facing a tragedy. They include families of sexual assault victims, riot victims and those dealing with natural disasters. Media, particularly TV, is violating basic decency.” 

In the Hathras gang rape case, Sharma said, class angle is also crucial as the majority of journalists visiting the victim’s village came from urban pockets of the country.  “They [journalists] feel a sense of entitlement walking into the house of a villager. I wonder if this behaviour will be accepted in any other country,” she said. 

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Victim's father interacting with journalists at his home in Hathras in north India's Uttar Pradesh state. Photo by Arpita De and Akshay Nair/ Vice World News

According to Geeta Seshu, senior journalist and member of the Free Speech Collective, the sheer lack of sensitivity while covering cases such as Hathras gang rape, spoils the argument for free media. “Incessant media coverage is good only if it puts things into perspective, connect the dots and talks about the structural breakdown of institutions such as the judiciary and police,” Seshu told VICE News. “What we are seeing in this case is a media spectacle.”

Early this week, when the barricades were removed for the media to come in, a relative of the family said they had also requested the police to stop journalists for a few days. “We are under so much pressure. Everyday, journalists come, and they want to talk,” she told VICE News. “It’s one thing that we want to be heard. But it’s another that they do not allow us to be ourselves within our own homes.”

Meanwhile, upper-caste families told VICE News that the media rarely visits them and is not interested in their side of the story. “People come in, they listen to us, but we don’t see any support for us the way they support the Valmikis,” said a member of the accused’s family. In contrast to the cacophony of the Dalit family, the Thakur’s courtyard has an eerie silence. 

The young woman’s brother told VICE News that the family is tired, unwell and on the verge of a breakdown. “But it looks like the media is our only way to reach the government to seek justice,” he said. “We have to have faith in the justice system. What else is there for us to do?”

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