The Media’s Kangaroo Courts (First posted on Facebook)

I have briefly met Shoma Chaudhury once. She is not my friend. I have never met Khurshid Anwar or Tarun Tejpal. So certainly they are not my friends. And I am in no way related to the young boy, who the media decided was the beast, the monster and the worst perpetrator in the December 16, 2012 rape. 

The protection of women is a priority that cannot be debated – whether it is the 16 December rape victim, a law intern, a journalist, victims in Muzzafarnagar, women like Soni Sori – or the minor rape victims that I have personally dealt with over my years of work. They must get justice. However as I read a piece by Seema Mustafa on the role of the media and the death of Khurshid Anwar, it set me thinking and I felt compelled to make a few observations.

I am not commenting on what Khurshid Anwar or Tarun Tejpal may or may not have done. That is for the judicial process to decide, on fact based trials. It is the role of the media and the public hysteria that it manages to generate, where there is a trial and a conviction in the street, and in every living room, today, that deeply worries me.

Seema Mustafa’s article has raised some important points regarding the role of the media and it took me back a few weeks to the pillorying that Shoma Chaudhury received from the media. She was accused of collusion, of hiding facts and indicted for not having filed a police complaint immediately, by journalists, activists and even male politicians who were suddenly experts on sexual harassment and women’s rights.

Of course there were gaps. Tehelka did not have a Committee to deal with Sexual Harassment in the Work Place- but then how many media houses, corporates or even NGOs have one? Even the Supreme Court of India did not have one till recently! When Tehelka and Shoma acknowledged this gap and announced the setting up of an inquiry committee and feminist and activist, Urvashi Butalia, with impeccable credentials, agreed to be on this committee, the media produced photographs of her on some panel with Tarun Tejpal, to establish they were friends and hence unfit to be on the panel. Most of us are often on panels, meetings and even social gatherings with diverse people – are they all our friends? And does this make us all unfit to be on panels of inquiry?

Why Shoma did not go to the police and file a complaint as soon as soon as the journalist approached her- is the question that has been repeatedly raised. Shoma has stated that her immediate response was to what the girl had requested, and going to the police is a process that the woman herself needed to be ready to go through, which was not immediately indicated. Is that so wrong? After all it appears that the in the case of alleged sexual assault by Khurshid Anwar, the choice was left to the girl for close to 3 months, as to when she would want to move the law by the well known women activists she had approached, some of whom were on the board of the organisation she worked in. Should all these women also be accused of collusion and silence, for not having promptly informed the police? All of us who work with victims of sexual assault find that the person concerned has to be mentally prepared to plunge into the criminal and legal battle that requires time, and often further pain. So why has Shoma been ‘hanged’ for thinking the same? At best we can say Shoma could have handled the situation better, with more procedure in place. But does that make her a co-accused and pushed out of every public space? 

Although in a much smaller measure I do know what it is to be in the eye of the media storm. Following the December 16 rape last year, the boy now 18 was tried and condemned on 24×7 media channels and print alike. He was declared the worst perpetrator and the beast. Based this one incident, the cry was for changing the law on juvenile justice. No one bothered to read the 357 page charge sheet. When the Police finally put out a 2 line statement that was carried only by two newspapers stating they retracted the statement that he was the worst perpetrator, no one else mentioned it. That was not the sexy by line. In the mean time the damage has been done. Respected Professor of Law, Dr. B.B Pande has written in an article that he has heard the concerned Magistrate admit that she succumbed to public pressure in her final order despite lack of evidence and also concerns about the boys safety in face of such public outrage. The boy lives in solitary confinement. Reporters who have met him say he swings between anxiety, fear and depression.

This boy is not my child, my friend or relative. But I do believe that he too deserved a fair trial. Besides, one incident cannot lead to the entire juvenile justice system being changed. That is when our society is determined by the one small window on the TV news screen. There we were stuck in a corner, with every other window closed and the anchors pushing us against the wall. It has been decided that we, me and others like me, support rapists and not the victim; that after our years of work with children we are not in touch with the reality of how children mature these days etc etc. Apart from other facts, they did not even try to get our names right. My colleague Bharti Ali became Bharti HAQ. The organisation HAQ: Centre for Child Rights became HAQ Foundation! My name of course is often too difficult to even pronounce! We were simply those persons that were put up on the screen so that the others could vent. For having another voice, we unequivocally represented the untold violence by all those horrible, monstrous boys that the system lets off.

In the public outrage that followed it has become impossible to go for a simple dinner party without someone coming up and saying—“so you think that boy who is the worst perpetrator should not be punished?” or “how can you be supporting a rapist?” ….We have even got mails saying –“hope you are raped or hope your child is raped because that is when you will understand the plight of the victim”. The window on the TV screen does not give enough time to mention that we work with victims of abuse too, most often very small children, and see their plight every day!

Thank god I am not as high profile or well known as Shoma. So I still have my job and my privacy and I don’t have politicians smearing my name plate. Luckily my children are old enough to be able to deal with it when they are told their mother supports rapists and delinquents. But Khurshid Anwar did not have the resilience to tide the storm. I do hope Shoma Choudhury and all those others that the media targets have it.


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