If you were to ask journalists how they do day-to-day stories on trafficking and forced commercial sex work, they would tell you that it is based primarily on raids and rescue done by law enforcement agencies and NGOs.
Domain experts believe however, that these stories only scratch the surface, and the problem of commercial sexual exploitation, especially that of children, is much bigger than that.
At a workshop on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEoC) organised by Change.org, TNM and Change Mantras on Wednesday, experts talked about the various aspects of the issue which media coverage often misses out on.
How the media covers CSEoC
Roop Sen, founding member of Sanjog and a researcher on issues of trafficking and migration, told around 20 journalists from various publications in Bengaluru, that in majority of the stories, there is no backtracking to the trafficker – either by police or by the media.
“The brothel owner for instance is indicted. But there is no effort to backtrack where they bought the children from,” he said.
Anuradha (L), Roop Sen (R)
Further, when journalists cover these stories based on raids and rescue, it mostly focuses on stories of the survivor. The narrative is weaved in a way that the survivor, and their traumatic experience, is in the centre of it.
“There is no visibility of the trafficker,” Roop points out, explaining that this essentially helps in these ‘brokers’ continue targeting more vulnerable people because no one tracks a single raid back to them.
He conceded however that stories such as these, which involve backtracking and probing organised crime beyond the surface requires time as well as resources, which many reporters with tight deadlines do not have.
Trafficking is only a fraction of how CSEoC happens
Roop also states that trafficking, which forms the largest chunk of media coverage on CSEoC as well, is all but a third or a fourth of how the exploitation happens.
“Much of business has moved online now. There is social media, the dark web and so on. Further, in cases where family members or partners of young girls for instance are pimping them out – it is not trafficking per se. But it is still CSEoC,” he explains.
“Take the example of all boys’ WhatsApp groups where pornographic pictures are shared. Sometimes, it is very hard to make out if the photos have minors or adult persons. It is done in the name of ‘fun’ but this is also a manifestation of CSEoC,” Roop said.
Anuradha Nagaraj, the trafficking and slavery correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said that we can learn about how CSEoC happens by tapping into other sources of information such as cyber-crime, social welfare department, and lower courts as well.
She also addressed a concern that many present seemed to have – that stories such as these do not go beyond covering raids and rescues because reporters have to deliver multiple stories each day and don’t have the luxury of working on a story for more than a few days.
“After the raid and rescue, the case will go to trial. There is also the post-rescue rehabilitation and integration. If you can just keep track of these things remotely, at the end of a few months, you will have a great story without having to put too much time and effort on a daily basis,” she said.
The demand aspect and holding customers accountable
Another facet of CSEoC that does not get covered in the media, and is also glossed over by law enforcement, is incriminating the customers who purchase sex from minors.
“It's easier for law enforcement to incriminate abusers when there's non-commercial sexual exploitation. But when there's financial transaction, it somewhat legitimises the customer in their eyes,” Roop pointed out.
He explains that customers are of two types: habitual (those who seek out minors to have sex with) and casual (who buy sex, but that they choose a minor is a matter of chance than deliberate choice). Either way, when the law enforcement does not incriminate customers, they fail to address the demand aspect of flesh trade, which is a pertinent issue.
Pitching stories and contextualising them
Responding to concerns about editors in newsrooms not wanting to take raid and rescue stories forward, Anuradha said that the key is to pitch the story in a such a way that it matters to an audience larger than those in the immediate context.
However, not everyone agreed. “I don’t believe national statistics need to be added to every local story to make it bigger. I believe that the individual narrative can be made so powerful and strong that a person sitting in Mumbai or Delhi is compelled to read a story that has happened in Bengaluru,” argued Dhanya Rajendran, TNM Editor-in-Chief.
Further, both Roop and Anuradha pointed out that it was important for journalists to collaborate in order to make stories larger than their local context. Journalist should also look to collaborate with civil society as well as therapists, especially when interviewing survivors, in order to get responses in a way it does not re-traumatise them and also allows them the creativity to express.