Can media be held accountable?

September 27, 2020

Reporting on rape does not promote rape, but perpetuating rape culture in the media may be promoting rape

Courtesy of Florian Weichelt, Unsplash


Almost exactly a decade ago, a young woman, driving home, accompanied by a friend, was accosted, raped and left by the side of the road. Back then, in 2010, author and journalist Saba Imtiaz, walked into Karachi’s Darakshan police station, and like the many other reporters present there she was handed the same succinct narrative of what had happened.

The phrases being thrown about were ‘returning from a party’, ‘late at night’, and ‘unaccompanied by a man’. In another context these words may be innocuous, but when attached to a woman, especially a woman who is reporting a rape to police officials, these phrases define how the crime will be reported in the media and who will carry the blame for it.

In 2019, a young woman’s abduction from the same upscale neighborhood of Karachi, made headlines that were eerily reminiscent to the 2010 rape reporting. The media posited similar questions: why was she out after dark without a family member? what was she wearing? what was her relationship with the abductor?

“If we had a culture in which women could safely be out at night, these words and phrases would be received differently,” explains Imtiaz. “But for our society the implication is that the survivor had it coming.” Imtiaz explains that in conversations between the police, media, and politicians who often immediately make themselves available at such camera-ops, there is a lot of exchange of pre-conceived notions about women. “If you repeat these notions often enough, especially in the media, at some point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; right? You go out late at night, this is what will happen.”

Unfortunately, instead of living in a culture where women are safe in public or private spaces, we live in a culture of rape. “Rape culture is about a lot more than the crime of rape,” says Dr Nida Kirmani, a professor of sociology at LUMS. “Very simply put, it’s about the objectification of women in general. It’s a culture in which women are viewed as sexual objects.”

Rape culture is not exclusive to Pakistan. Having a male dominated media is also not exclusive to Pakistan. This is not to say that male journalists will always perpetuate rape culture, or even that female journalists do not perpetuate it. It is just to say that as long as men dominate newsrooms, the framework, longevity and treatment of stories about violence against women, whether its rape or sexual harassment, will be decided by men.

Similarly, the idea that when news media reflects rape culture, rape is more likely to occur, is also not exclusive to Pakistan. In a 2018 quantitative analysis of rape culture titled, Does Rape Culture Predict Rape? Evidence from US Newspapers 2000-2013, the researchers wrote that when the tone of the coverage and the word choices can be interpreted as showing empathy for the accused and blame for victims, rape is more likely to occur.

It is important to note that the research does not posit a correlation or causation between the occurrence of rape and the media coverage of rape but the correlation between the occurrence of rape and the media coverage of rape culture. The authors outline the four components of rape culture in news media as coverage that implies the survivor’s consent, uses victim-blaming language, shows empathy for the accused and questions the victim’s credibility.

For anyone who consumes Pakistani print, electronic, or digital media none of these components are unfamiliar. Survivor’s consent is oft implied in rape cases whether the survivor is 11 or 60 years old, male or female; victim-blaming language was used for the survivor of the motorway rape; empathy for the accused is prevalent in the way the majority of sexual harassment cases are reported; and questioning a female survivor’s credibility is a national pastime.

The authors of the above-mentioned paper also state that the words and phrases used to describe victims and perpetrators has a significant impact on the public’s perception about what kind of behaviour is acceptable. For instance, in the reporting of the motorway case, the constant use of the descriptor of darinda or na-mard used for the alleged rapist reaffirms the misguided idea that a man who commits this kind of sexual violence is someone outside the ambit of humane society.

“By describing a rapist as a monster, the media encourages us to categorise the perpetrator as non-human, making him an exception. We need to see rapists as connected to society as a whole because they are a continuation and a product of our patriarchal society. By making rapists into monsters, we tiptoe around the fact that all men have the potential to act in this way,” says Dr Kirmani.

Another mistake the media has been making for more than a decade is not calling rape, rape. Tasneem Ahmar, the founder and director of Uks, a research, resource, and publication centre on women and media, has been trying to change this for more than a decade. “Since at least 2005, in our media trainings, we have been instructing journalists to use the word rape instead of phrases like izzat lut jana or ziyadti or zabardasti,” she said.

In a 2017 opinion piece for Dawn, Nazish Brohi writes about how “there is no local word for rape” and then raises the important question of whether we can “register something, understand it, and grapple with it if we don’t have a word for it?” She asks if we can “understand the experience of sexualised subjugation when we have no conceptual architecture to even recognise it?” After all, the word ziyadti cannot fully encompass the trauma of rape.

If we don’t have a local word for rape, why are we so hesitant to borrow? Ahmar’s point is that if our culture and language can absorb words like botal and iskool from English, such hesitation to accept ‘rape’ into our lexicon is not justified. A wide scale approach by reporters and news anchors calling a rape, a rape and directly acknowledging it will help dismantle some of the stigma attached to rape.

The issues at hand

For 16 years, Advocate Asiya Munir has been trying to provide justice to survivors of rape. Some are as young as 9 years old, many were raped at their own homes, most were raped by people they knew and trusted. The stories she tells are bone chilling and yet according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a woman is raped every two hours somewhere in the country.

For 16 years, she has observed how the news media promotes rape culture. When Munir first began her career at War Against Rape, she recalls, print media would not even write the name of her institution, because it had the word ‘rape’ in it. Instead they described her as a social rights lawyer.

The media has always been interested in the same types of details, these include photos of the survivor, her background, if she has any relationships or friendships in the past or present, how the survivor dresses, how did her family react to her being raped, her family background including their occupations. “This kind of reporting not only promotes rape culture by implying that the woman’s habits or clothing caused the rape, or that she consented to it, but also directly puts the family in jeopardy, family members of survivors have lost jobs due to insensitive media attention,” says Munir.

But it’s almost too simple to lay all the blame of the shoulders of reporters. Sidra Dar has almost a decade of experience reporting for a variety of electronic media houses before joining Voice of America as a correspondent. She says she’s never received a training on how to cover rape stories, to say there is a dearth of training on covering violence against women would be an understatement.

Nonetheless, she has countless stories about rape cases she has reported on, as well as cases that she wasn’t allowed to report on by the gatekeepers of media institutions: the (overwhelmingly) male editors, producers and publishers working in the shadows. Then there are the TV packages on rape that lie in the no man’s land between those two options.

“A few years ago, I interviewed a 14-year-old whose father had been raping her for years. The story and the issues it highlighted were heartbreaking and important. I followed my instincts, we changed her name, when we recorded her interview we didn’t show her face, we verified the facts from the court and the medico legal officer,” she said. But when Dar got back to her office to show her bureau chief work she was proud of, he said: “Don’t you think this kind of reporting is immoral? This will spread fear amongst viewers. We can’t run this story.” Dar was speechless.

After having to go above the bureau chief’s head to the news director, Dar was allowed to run the story, but the bureau chief made so many scripting and editing changes that by the time the story ran on an obscure afternoon bulletin the rapist’s crime was barely recognisable.

“Reporters judge the women subjected by crimes of violence before even hearing all the facts. I cannot count the number of times I have heard reporters respond to a story about a missing girl or woman by saying ‘she probably ran away herself’. Blaming the victim, or implying consent are the first explanations that come to their minds,” said Dar. “But you have to remember reporters, regardless of the medium, are not working alone, there is a whole team working with them who they have to appease and work alongside. And most importantly, it’s the ones at the top, the gatekeepers whose mentality and mindset seep into everything.”

Last week a journalist with a huge Twitter following, an influential gatekeeper in the Pakistani media, saw a woman lifting weights on PTV. Some would have viewed that as a pleasant reminder to hit the gym. Others, myself included, may have experienced repressed guilt about the dust gathering on their yoga mat. This particular journalist regarded this woman as a threat to Pakistan’s culture and identity, he highlighted the work-out video to the PEMRA and the prime minister via Twitter. Such are the gatekeepers of our media institutions. These are the men deciding which type of violence against women is important, which type of victim deserves coverage and for how long.

While it’s true that the journalists covering rape, or promoting rape culture, or doing both, are from within the same society where a woman is being raped every two hours, and so it’s unfair to expect them to be above this culture; it’s also true that journalists are responsible for shaping public discourse which means we cannot stop demanding more/better from them.

What is still gravely lacking in the media - whether it’s reporting on the motorway incident, the much ignored prevalence of transgender people being raped, or domestic rape - is encouraging reporting of all kinds of rape, including those that challenge our self-conceived morality, conversations about police reform and police sensitisation to all kinds of rapes, facts that hold the legal system accountable, reporting that forces governments to hire more medico legal officers, and discussions about the trauma of sexual violence for all genders.

The more things change, the more they remain the same

Ahmar founded Uks in the late 1990s. “I remember one of the first rape cases we dealt with had sensational headlines, photographs of the survivors and all kinds of possible personal information about her,” she said. Back then, she says, our society was not even ready to talk about HIV and AIDS. In her opinion, reporting on crimes against women is improving. “For one, now you’ll see more anonymous survivors, which means journalists are more sensitive to not reveal the survivor’s identity,” says Ahmar.

Advocate Munir agrees. She remembers a time when reporters wouldn’t cover a story unless it had the perfect victim, but now, she says, she is occasionally pleased to see magazines do in-depth stories not just on the event surrounding a rape, but on the entire culture around rape.

Take the sensitive way Fareeha Idrees reported the motorway rape case, listen to Maria Memon or Mehr Bukhari talk about what is lacking in rape reporting (conviction rates, scarcity of medico legal officers, societal mindset, patriarchal culture), look at how delicately Shahzeb Khanzada reported on sexual harassment or the larger culture around rape. These anchors stand to prove that journalists can learn the language we need them to, and that they do have the ability to not promote rape culture despite covering sexual violence against women.

For now though, for every Fareeha there are ten other anchors citing the ‘rising immorality of women and society’ as a cause of rape, for every Maria there are many journalists who believe that when a transgender person is attacked, they must have been asking for it or consented, and for every Shahzeb, there is somebody who thinks it’s okay to question why a woman leaves her house at night.

“There has been some positive change,” says Imtiaz. “But by and large, editors and publishers are mostly men, newsrooms are still filled with men and crime reporters are mostly male. While these men are calling the shots, a change from our current rape culture will be slow.” 

The author is an ex-staff member. She tweets @JMaham

Can media be held accountable?