Changing the narrative

Adeela Akmal
January 18, 2022

Reporting on cases of gender-based crimes, it’s imperative for reporters to have accurate sources and follow protocols to avoid any slip-ups that they could be held accountable for. For this, they need trainings and the support of the organisations. You! takes a look…

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On August 6th, 1989, two nurses were raped at the hospital by a 4th year medical student. Amid the strife of the two victims, a news piece suggested that when the case was brought to light, a rumour could be heard “that the ‘money deal’ part of the nurse’s relationship with the young medics might have been violated.” Furthermore, the case was handled poorly from the beginning – from the victims being arrested to the case hearings being adjourned several times, the callous attitude of law enforcement agencies was evident.

Fast forward to 31 years, on September 9th, 2020, a woman was raped by two unidentified men in front of her children on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway. There was outcry on the incident and even more when the Lahore CCPO, Umar Sheikh, gave a victim-blaming statement questioning the woman’s choice of route and her decision to leave with her children at night.

Despite a rich history of advocacy for legal reform, community education and the rights of victims, many people still hold on to problematic views about the victims. These ideas may have become more subtle over time, but they are still deep-rooted in the society. When it comes to reshaping the public opinion, the media can play a pivotal role. Albeit slow, there is a shift observed when it comes to the coverage of sexual harassment, violence and rape cases.

Saher Baloch

Saher Baloch is a reporter who covers Human Rights and Minorities, and is currently working for BBC. She feels that social media has brought a positive change as people are not only looking for traditional ways to tell stories.

They are now telling their own stories though social media. The Lahore motorway incident was first shared on social media. Another incident, where a child was raped in Shikarpur by a teacher, also came through social media.

While this goes for any news, but when reporting a case for harassment or gender-based violence it becomes all the more critical that the sources are accurate and there are certain protocols being followed.“Over the years, reportage on rape and sexual harassment has grown and the news is even being published on front and back pages. At first you would keep looking for the news somewhere on page 5 and even on the website it would be placed somewhere at the bottom, so that you wouldn’t find it easily. Now these things are getting coverage and there are follow-ups in minutes. I think there is a huge but a good change,” opines Saher.

“Most of our sources are at the hospital and the police are the ones who have the first report of any incident,” tells Ebad Usmani, a crime reporter for 9 years at a local TV channel. “We have daily contacts with them and the common man is also our source. The details of the FIR are definitely part of our story because it contains the legal statement of the affected family or a person and is considered final.”

Ebad Usmani

Ebad adds that he personally wouldn’t write anything that would harm the victim’s family or friends or anyone related to them. “I try and tell what the affected person has gone through, but unfortunately, I haven’t seen any rules and regulations follow in this regard in electronic media and other places. Sexually explicit news is very popular in our country which is why many reporters expose every detail of the victim which should be considered very unethical.”

On the other hand, Saqib Sagheer, a crime reporter for 16 years (10 years at daily Jang), says, “We are very careful about it [protocols]. We don’t disclose the name of the victim, picture, address and this goes for both, cases of rape and sexual harassment. We can give the names of the accused but even for that it has to be proven by the medico-legal officer (MLO) or the court. There are times when the pictures of the accused are running in the media, but we only use the picture in the follow-up stories once the alleged has been proven guilty.”

Saqib Sagheer

In terms of protocols Saher shares similar measures regarding protecting the victim and their details. However, she also highlights that in case of the culprit, it could be tricky. “The protocols include not giving out the victim’s details, even if it’s their name. The name is only used in the cases when it has already been disclosed in the media by the source or if it is mentioned in the court. For instance, in case of Noor Mukadam, we already knew her name but we did not disclose any other details like her home address. However, Zahir Jaffer’s name and house address was mentioned because that was where the murder happened,” informs Saher. “Another thing, we cannot reveal is the details of the victims (such as the address etc) because there is strict action against it within the organisation itself. I have often seen local newspapers where this error is made, for instance, they would mention a particular residential area when they could have just mentioned the city and moved on with it. I have worked with three organisations and I see that my current organisation has more repercussions when this blunder happens.”

Between the years, 1980 to 1993, in a mainstream English daily there were 123 relevant news pieces were observed, involving cases of rape and sexual harassment. Out of these stories, there was only one story that mentioned the term ‘sexual harassment’. 71 per cent were just one-column stories, 23 per cent were two-column and only 6 per cent (8 news pieces) were either three-column or four-column pieces, which were mostly feature pieces. While there was a glaring lack of empathy observed in many news pieces for the victims, which sadly still persists, there were some positive developments. This includes the formation of Women Action Forum (WAF) and its sub-committee War Against Rape (WAR). This NGO was not only working actively to help rape victims pursue their cases but also sensitising the public about the trauma of rape victims. They talked about having empathy for rape victims, respecting their dignity and more importantly to stop victim shaming.

As there is a shift in media trends, there is also debate about whether the narrative be changed and the culprit should be in frame rather than the victim. “In case of the harasser, there is a two-pronged strategy. According to the guidelines of my current workplace, the UK law is implemented here. Even if I am doing a story in Pakistan, I could still be held accountable. Here, we have to stick to our neutrality and impartiality. We have to be impartial in these cases which is why in many cases we don’t even give the name of the harasser unless there is a court proceeding that is happening and the name has been mentioned in it as the ‘alleged’,” tells Saher.

Framing the ‘alleged’ culprit in a story seems like an easy thing to do, but there can be repercussions for the reporters or the organisations themselves, if it’s done callously.

“We should be talking about the culprit more,” stresses Saher. “This came up when we were covering the Noor Mukadam case. At that point in time, I remember the first two initial stories had Noor’s face and all of us at the workplace thought this is not how it should be. After that, we did look for Zahir Jaffer’s pictures (initial images of when he was taken into custody). This is a recurring discussion in our newsroom and thankfully we have a platform where we can say such things.”

“We do get training on reporting on gender-based violence and children. There is a very specific way of to avoid any defamation cases. If you take the culprit’s name without it being proved first, they can file a lawsuit against you. So, we do not name the victim and the culprit unless and until they have been proven so, or have been said so by the court. Also, in case of the victim, there are very specific guidelines about the victim’s name or the victim’s home address or even if you have to speak with their family members, you have to do it with their consent,” explains Saher.

Ebad says that whatever the cause of the crime, doing anything against someone can harm them. “There have been cases when one is being framed as a culprit rather than the other way round. I must keep a balance but the privacy of the victim must be taken care of.”

Saqib says that he tries to focus on the culprit more but in some places you have to mention the victim even if you are not mentioning the details.

In any field, it is imperative for a professional to stay updated with the changing times and for that you need relevant trainings to avoid any slip-ups.

Saqib mentions that he has done a lot of trainings, as one needs to stay updated with the laws, but no such training was given by the organisation. Ebad shares that he has received fellowships and workshops from universities and foreign news agencies which were useful and necessary, however, he feels that it’s a pity that the institutions where you work are not providing such workshops or training. Saher on the other hand has been fortunate enough to receive relevant trainings which reflects how in-tune she is with her profession.

Moreover, when it comes to reporting on such stories, there are a lot of security risks as well. In this Saher talks about her experience, “There is a proper safety net here. We have to fill out a Risk Assessment Form when we are going to Balochistan or KP because there are some red areas specifically in Pakistan.”

“When we go for the reporting on such stories, we have to inform at least four to five editors. We have to fill out a form where we have to mention who are these people we are going to interview, where are we going to go, why are we doing it and those who are contributing to it, are they safe? And if they are in danger, how we will be managing that. Like when we went to report on Hazara families who came from Afghanistan, an email was circulated in the whole office by the editors that for every Afghan family coming in, you cannot show their faces. Their voice will be dubbed because they were in danger here and there. We are always questioned on how responsible we are being while doing a story.”

Saqib on the other hand informs that he doesn’t get safety from the organisation, whereas Ebad claims he does have safety but only to the limit of the story.

Despite the growing awareness, we still find that there is lack of empathy in gender-based reporting. A newsroom is generally a reflection of the society but an improvement in the newsroom can help reshape public opinion. “The newsrooms generally are male-dominated and misogynistic, whether they are for TV channels or newspapers. A reflection of that is that earlier in our organisation, in the morning meetings, there were mostly men speaking up about story ideas and what should and shouldn’t go. Later on, this was felt by the editors, and they changed that by having more women in the morning meetings and giving them leadership roles, which brought a positive change,” informs Saher.

Furthermore, social media is starting to dictate most of our newsroom agenda, as it brings many neglected issues to light. However, this also means that one has to fact-check the sources vigilantly.

Moreover, Saqib highlights that with the ease that comes with social mediums, it has its drawbacks as well. “Things change with time. Details that you would have to go and get are now easily exchanged on WhatsApp. But the drawback is that people are getting lazier now. The number of follow-ups has gone down. Talking to the MLO and doctors was part of the story and so were the interviews with victim’s family for details. This has now reduced; the space in newspapers has also reduced so we are asked to make smaller stories.”

A visible change can only come when the organisation itself has its own guidelines and a structure that holds its staff responsible. Moreover, good editors are important as they bring the most change. For instance, if there is a law within the organisation, it will have an impact as it will apply to everybody. Good and competant editors will ensure that these guidelines are being followed and they enlighten the reporters. The editors can guide these reporters on ethical practices and integrity, this is how change will come. Otherwise, there won’t be any improvements made.

In this regard, Saher shares her experience, “Our organisation has an editorial audit. They ask why a headline was written in a certain way or why a picture went and if the narrative seems one-sided anywhere. This is an evolving process. I have made it my personal principle to not let the victims become a statistic.”

The author tweets as AdeelaAkmal



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