Ranjona Banerji: Media was hero & villain of Guwahati horror

16 Jul,2012

By Ranjona Banerji


The media turned out to be the villain and the hero last week. The case was the same – the shameful and horrific molestation of a young girl on a busy street in Guwahati last Monday night. The girl was apparently coming out of a bar where she had gone to celebrate a birthday party. She was then attacked by a mob which beat her and stripped her for about half an hour till the police arrived. The reason for the attack seems unclear as yet but it is enough to say that no reason is justification enough. What increases the shame is that there were several bystanders – it was about 9 in the evening and the area was crowded – who did nothing but watch.


A local TV channel, Newslive caught the incident on camera. One version is that a passing reporter from the channel alerted his office. Another is that the channel “got to hear” and came rushing out. Editors of the channel claim that its employees called the police. The DGP says the call came from a neighbouring hotel. The editors of the channel also claimed that they debated for a whole day about whether to show the footage or not and decided that it was in best journalistic interests to show it, if only to help catch the perpetrators. The incident was televised on Tuesday. By Thursday it was picked up by the national media and went viral on the internet as well.


By Friday, it was the news of the day everywhere. Most news channels showed it, blurring the victim’s face. She appeared to be a young girl being brutalised by this mob of men. The men’s faces were seen clearly. Most channels also interacted with viewers who were obviously outraged.


In the early evening on Friday, Times Now put its own spin on the story and decided that it was not going to show the footage because it would only lead to the victim being further traumatised. The channel said it would only show the faces of the attackers. It then asked its viewers to call in and discuss whether the channel was right or not.
The media itself was now an integral part of the story. The first question is one that journalists regularly face when covering such events – should they do their job and observe, collect information or should they have a human reaction and help. It is a difficult problem and probably has to be answered on a case by case basis by the individuals involved. But it is fair to ask whether the journalists on this case needed to watch for half an hour without stepping in. This was not a war, this was a street fight. One journalist appeared on TV saying he was too frightened by the mob. Headlines Today interviewed the girl, face blurred, who said she was begging for help which did not come.


Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, tried to grill Assam DGP Jayanta Narayan Chaudhury on why so few arrests had been made and why the police took half an hour to arrive but only got anodyne answers.


Then there is the issue of whether showing the footage served any purpose. The sad fact is that had Newslive not shown the story, no one would have known about it nor seen, in all its horror, what such an attack looks like. The anger which was felt across the country was precisely because people saw what happened. Just reading or hearing about it is not quite so moving. The helplessness of the girl, the glee on the men’s faces – the brutish nature of the human condition was laid bare for all to see. Was Times Now therefore being too squeamish or even self-righteous?


Also, by showing the incident, the faces of the men were clearly seen and some were even identified. (It is another matter that the main culprit, Amar Jyoti Kalita, also identified by his Facebook page, is still absconding.) Many viewers pointed this out to Times Now.


However, the involvement of the media has now become murkier. An India Against Corruption activist from Assam, Akhil Gogoi, has handed over footage to the police which shows Gaurav Jyoti Neog, a journalist with Newslive, inciting the mob to molest the girl. Gogoi showed the footage at the Guwahati Press Club. Neog has resigned his job and said he is “cooperating” with the investigation.


If indeed Gogoi’s allegations are correct, then the shame on the media is incalculable. Sadly this is not the first time that TV journalists have been accused of inciting people to horrific acts just to get a story. But some attempts need to be made to ensure that this is the last. The Indian media has enough problems without walking down the News of the World road to get a scoop.


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