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The New Age Moral Police

The New Age Moral Police
Highlights

It was 10.30 pm. Shruthi, Adwitiya, Prachi, and Megha, final year law students from NALSAR University were leaving for hostel after a farewell party...

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It was 10.30 pm. Shruthi, Adwitiya, Prachi, and Megha, final year law students from NALSAR University were leaving for hostel after a farewell party that their juniors had organised for them at Rain Club in Hyderabad. As they were entering the pre-booked cabs, they saw a man pointing his mobile at them.

Suspecting his intentions, they protested; one thing led to the other and a media camera entered the scene. The relieved girls were in for a shock as they realised that the camera was focusing on them instead of helping them and the next morning they were all over television screens and the severely distorted version of the clippings left them angry and insulted�Welcome to the new age moral police!!!

R Akhileshwari

In view of the aforementioned incidents and several of their ilk, majority of the TV channels seem to be the new champions of public morals, competing with the right-wing, fundamentalist organisations that are enemies of democracy and individual freedom.

There are many instances of this kind of reportage where TV cameras go in search of sleaze and stake out places like pubs and clubs in cities for 'juicy' stories. Suffice to cite the most recent ones: Last year when a young girl in an inebriated condition was being pawed by a mob of men in front of a pub in Guwahati, TV cameras gleefully recorded it and promptly telecast it. In another instance when a woman MLA was beaten up by her estranged husband, a TV camera team was part of the gang of goons that accompanied the culprit to participate in the public violence against the woman. The most recent example of the TV channels' lawless and anti-social behaviour is that of the incident that took place in front of a club on April 11 in Hyderabad.

Absolute Breach of Privacy

The final year students of the NALSAR law university were given a farewell party at a club in the uptown Jubilee Hills area. As the party ended around 10.30 pm, the girls were getting into pre-booked cabs to go back to the university which is a good one hour drive when they noticed a man filming them on his mobile. The girls and one of their male fellow students objected to and demanded that he delete the footage. He resisted and the group got aggressive so he handed over a phone which the girls took and left.

They took out the SIM card and returned to give back the phone to the man. By then some more of the students were having an altercation with the culprit. (Subsequently this man's phone was found to be a dummy). By then a TV camera team arrived on the scene, identified itself as media and began to film the altercation. They wanted the girls to speak which they refused.

They objected to the filming but the camera kept rolling. When the girls decided to leave in the cab they were prevented by the aggressive cameraman who thrust the camera into the girls' face demanding that they speak and taunting them why they were going quiet when they were shouting a little while ago. Somehow the girls managed to leave the spot. The next morning they were woken up by their hostel warden who told them that a TV channel was running a scandalous story on their behaviour.

The Fabricated Report

The report said the girls who were under-age, drunk and half-naked had picked up a quarrel with the media and had used foul and abusive language against them in their drunken state. It also said the club had violated the rules by remaining open beyond midnight and that the incident had taken place around 1.30 am. The girls said that the statements were wrong and had enough proof to claim so, but that did not matter obviously to the TV channel.

The report also did not speak about the reason for the altercation and the anchor admitted to the fact. The report blurred the upper bodies and faces of the girls suggesting they were indecently dressed and blanked out what the girls were saying. The story was uploaded on the channel which was promptly picked by six other Telugu TV channels. The story was spiced with footage of girls dancing and accompanied by headlines that described the girls as drunk, nude and dancing obscenely.

One TV channel also gave a police complaint against the girls. The story was uploaded on YouTube while several Telugu websites too picked it up. As Shruthi, a final year student who was involved in the fracas said, "I thought the media would support us for taking on the sleazy guy who was randomly videographing girls, but the media turned against us."

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Precedent-Setting Measure

When the TV channels refused to heed the students that they take off the offensive stories from their websites and apologise for misreporting and defaming the girls, they took recourse to social media, blogging and petitioning for support and for the taking down of the stories. There was no lack of it. More importantly, the NALSAR university stood by its students.

In a precedent-setting measure, the university administration, after hearing the students' version convened an emergency meeting of its executive council on April 14 and resolved to take up the matter with appropriate authorities. In a statement, the university recalled the amendments in the Criminal Law on the recommendations of the Justice J S Verma Commission against the "the recent voyeuristic practices by a section of the electronic media".

Accepting the suggestion of one of the members of the General Council of NALSAR, Justice P V Reddi, former Supreme Court judge and former Chairman, Law Commission of India, NALSAR constituted a Committee to suggest short-term and long-term measures to prevent recurrence of such incidents.

Women in Media's stand

The Network of Women in Media, India in a statement sent to various media regulatory bodies and the government of India demanded that the offending TV channels be censured and given exemplary punishment for their 'vigilante activities and regular targeting of women and other vulnerable groups in society'. "As media professionals who believe the news media have a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of the land and the ethics and standards of the profession, we are appalled at this misbehaviour by certain television channels," said NWMI statement.

"We request you to strongly censure the channels and websites for manufacturing a misleading and defamatory story by intruding into the privacy of girls and publicly harassing and intimidating them. We also request you to ensure that the channels involved in this misdemeanour are fined, made to apologise to the victims, and to carry the apology on channels (including their websites, if any) as prominently and as frequently as the coverage given to the incident. We firmly believe that, without exemplary punishment, such television channels will continue their vigilante activities, which routinely target women and other vulnerable groups in society."

Talibanisation of Media

Young women who 'pub and club' are angry at the Taliban side of the media, especially TV news channels. "What is wrong in it? We want to have fun. I do go and have a couple of drinks with not just my classmates and colleagues but even with my cousins. Sometimes, just the three of us girls (cousins) go to pub and have a good time. What is the big deal? Why can't a woman do whatever she wants and whenever and with whoever she wants," says an indignant Anupama, a 25-year-old public relations professional who regularly interacts with media and has a repertoire of stories to tell about male journalists and their drinking.

sun4"Electronic media randomly sensationalise..how is Hyderabad incident any different from the Mangalore one (when vigilantes of the right-wing Hindu outfit Sriram Sene bashed up girls and boys for being in a pub)?" Do her parents know and do they allow her to drink? "Oh yes..both are teetotalers but they understand that things are different in these times..almost everybody in our circle does social drinking..they do caution us but don't impose themselves on us." As for the media, she believes it is easier for the electronic media than the print to sensationalise because "it is so easy for them to record and upload in an instant."

Is the electronic media becoming an anti-social element? Yes, according to Shruthi of NALSAR. "In any case roads are so unsafe for a woman and now with TV cameras on the prowl, it is even more unsafe for women to even walk on the road and more so roads in front of pubs," she said. "Where can we be safe? Will people let us be and be happy and enjoy ourselves?" she asked. Her friend Megha who was one of those involved in the April 11 incident is appalled that their side of the story is simply not understood, especially by those in charge of the TV channels.

"How can they not get it? It is shameful that they are not honest enough to admit they are wrong. I thought everyone was human, but some in the media are not," she said. She, however said she was hardly feeling vulnerable but would like people to know that all kinds of violence were possible against women and that the TV channels were one of the perpetrators.

Professor Susie Tharu, well known feminist author, activist and researcher agrees. "It is really alarming and frightening to look at the unrestrained voyeuristic delight the media takes in humiliating and hurting women, by the demonstration of fiery, ugly male glee in the eye of camera or the hand that wields the pen," she said. She believes it is a reflection of the inadequacy of discussion of ethics in the practise of journalism especially in journalism schools and media offices.

Lack of Regulation

Satheesh Periyapatna, a media practitioner for 25 years, a first-generation TV producer and journalist, is also a media teacher and speaks in several national and international universities and media institutes. He was specially invited by UNESCO to speak at the Brisbane conference on Media and Freedom. He believes that stories like that of the Hyderabad incident happen mainly because of lack of regulation in the newsrooms. "These kind of stories go completely against the larger ethos that the media houses themselves uphold.

This situation is caused by the completely unregulated reporting that takes place. It becomes very apparent to viewers that between the live reporter and the anchor there is no News Editor. Thus reporting goes haywire. Especially when issues which border on moral policing are concerned, the retrogade attitudes of some reporters vitiate the reporting. Therefore all such reporting needs to be tempered by some quality editing. Otherwise media can become a hurdle in efforts to upgrade social mores of our society. Media can justifiably be accused of becoming Virtual Khap Panchayats."

Forgetting its basic role of being an agent of social change, fighting for people's rights and upholding the democratic principles as the Fourth Estate, the media is turning out to be anti-people. The very basis of the construction of the media today is perhaps the cause of this turn-about in the media's role. When the goal of most media is revenue, and its success is measured not in terms of larger social good it enables but in terms of profit, sensationalism and manufacturing of news becomes the instruments with which its goal is achieved. It is time for people to reclaim its media.

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