Savitha’s* memories of her growing up years are fraught with pain and anguish. The minor, who hails from a village in Andhra Pradesh, lost her father at a very young age. And then, she was sexually abused by her stepfather who also forced her into sex work.
She was eventually rescued by the police and put in a home where she is currently undergoing counselling. However, if the trauma of the abuse was not enough, the media reporting on the issue made her suffering worse.
“The media revealed my identity and mentioned which village I lived in, so I faced a lot of stigma from friends and family. I wanted to die,” Savitha says.
Savitha’s case is not an isolated one.
While stories of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEoC) rarely make news in the country, those that do are often accompanied by insensitive coverage and sensational reporting. Faces of survivors and other information that can identify them are often revealed, thus violating basic ethics of reporting and an individual’s privacy and personal rights.
“The biggest problem while rescuing women or child survivors of sexual exploitation is that the media, due to its overenthusiasm, tries to sensationalise events and ends up showing the faces of survivors. The media should instead focus more on investigating and identifying the criminals, and exposing the web of human trafficking,” says D Vijay Sagar,a child welfare activist and programme coordinator of NGO Help, which works to rescue and rehabilitate sexually exploited women and children.
Danger to life
Revealing names and disclosing identities can jeopardise the lives of survivors. “Rescued survivors cannot go back to their homes if their names come out. In villages, even a small clue about the age of a person is enough for the villagers to guess who the survivor is. And if they get to know who the survivor is, they often treat them humiliatingly,” Vijay adds.
Vijay recalled an incident where they were taking a woman to her village after she was rescued.
“Just after we got out of the auto-rickshaw, everyone kept staring at the woman and murmuring amongst themselves. They then started following us. When I asked them why they were behaving this way, they asked me where the woman had been all these days. I was shocked and couldn’t answer. Later, a couple of villagers told me that the survivor’s photo had appeared in the district edition of the newspaper. The woman couldn’t bear that social stigma and came back to us,” he says.
Media reportage of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation mostly focuses on raids and rescues. A simple Google search will throw up plenty of videos of sex work rackets busted by the police.
What’s common in most of these rescues is the cameras gaze at the faces of women who, though their faces are covered, are completely uncomfortable with a camera pointing at them.
Uma Sudhir, Executive Editor (South) at NDTV, says that while it is especially challenging for TV channels to cover stories of sexual assault without proper visuals, it is possible to tell the story engagingly and sensitively without revealing the identities of survivors.
“I agree with the guidelines that prohibit giving any information that identifies survivors. The challenge with TV is to tell the story with some kind of emotional connect. One way to do a story in an effective manner could be the using the visuals of a person’s hands, or let’s say if it is a school child, you could show visuals of a child’s plated hair,” she says.
Children most vulnerable
While this applies to all survivors of sexual abuse, it assumes more significance in the cases of children.
“Children are most vulnerable as they know neither their rights nor the laws. And this is not just for commercial sexual exploitation, but also other forms of exploitation such as child abuse and bonded labour. A child is least equipped to ask for their rights to be protected,” she says.
The senior journalist narrates an incident from a few years ago when an SP called the media to cover a story at a Hyderabad hospital. A minor, who was being sexually abused by her employer, had just been rescued by the police and had to undergo an abortion at the hospital.
“The SP, who should obviously have known the law, called the media to the hospital. I was shocked at the insensitivity even among the police,” she recollects.
Uma states that organisations need to train journalists to report such issues with sensitivity.
“Unless you handle it with sensitivity, you may be pushing the child into greater danger. The police cannot use illegal methods to question an accused in order to crack a case. Similarly, we are in a very privileged position to report and we cannot be violating those rights and it is incumbent on us to have that responsibility to not do it,” she adds.
“If the reporter is raw and does not know better, then it is up to the editorial and management of the organisation to ensure that the rules are followed. And they should train them to tell a story in such a way that they do not need to show a survivor’s face or give away identities. This requires training, skill and sensitivity,” according to Uma.
Tendency to question character of rescued women
If showing faces of survivors scampering for cover after a rescue makes for tantalising visuals, there also seems to be a tendency to question the character of the women rescued.
When actor Shweta Prasad was caught allegedly in a sex racket in 2014, visuals of the actor being escorted by the police were aired widely. The actor, whose face was covered, can clearly be seen trying to avoid the camera and hiding her face with her hand as well. While reports stated that several businessmen had also been apprehended, their visuals and faces were nowhere to be seen.
Two women actors who were rescued in a 'high profile' sex racket from Hyderabad last year were taped on camera when the police raided two hotels in the posh Banjara Hills. In one of the videos that was aired, though the face of the woman was blurred, it is clear that she is covering her face.
Emphasising this point, Uma recounted a recent incident that took place in a press conference in Hyderabad. The police had arrested a woman in connection to a crime, though the case was not related to commercial sexual exploitation.
“At one point during the conference, a policewoman deliberately pulled away her hand from hiding her face and her senior, a male officer, slapped the woman. At a live press conference. It was like they were saying, ‘How dare you? What kind of a woman are you?’”
“While the woman was an accused, it is not for the police or the media to punish her by public shaming. That’s not how the law of the land works,” Uma states.
(With inputs from Balakrishna Ganeshan)