Guest Column by NN Sachitanand: Rape, Punishment and the Media

25 Apr,2013

By NN Sachitanand


Punishment, as meted out by our courts, has two dimensions : retributive and deterrent. The first directly affects the convicted person. The second is supposed to impact society. Retribution can normally be executed by the power of the state without much of a problem, unless the sentence involves sensitivities which can cause security-related problems.


Achieving deterrence is not that simple. In primitive societies, retribution and deterrence were closely interlinked. Punishments were openly executed for the public to see, whether it be flogging or incarceration in stocks or burning at the stake or decapitation. To enable more people to get the message the bodies of hung criminals swung on gallows and decapitated heads were placed on pikes for days on end. If we adopted those tactics today I am sure the number of dowry-related bride burning cases would go down drastically if the convicted husbands/in-laws were publicly burnt at the stake and acid throwing crimes would become very rare if the perpetrator was doused by acid as retributive punishment in front of TV cameras.


But we live in more humane times where, despite the uncivilized nature of the crime, retributive punishment by the state is supposed to be more restrained and low profile. So, convicts spend time in jail away from public gaze and are quietly released at the end of their sentences while executions have become the “rarest of the rare” and are carried out almost clandestinely. That takes most of the sting of deterrence out of punishment.


There is, however, another way deterrence can be given a fillip even within the limits of today’s “civilized” punishment system. And this is where the media comes in. To achieve deterrence, justice must not just be done but also seen to be done. Our media, thanks to the unbridled freedom given it, does a good job of reporting crime and making a hue and cry about it. But it has singularly failed in highlighting convictions. While the commission of ghastly crimes like rape and murder form front page news, the conclusion of a case against the perpetrators and passing of judgement merit only a cursory mention tucked away in the inside pages.


Consequently, most convictions and associated punishments do not catch the attention of the public, thereby dissipating their deterrent effect. It is a short step from this to the belief that the state is either not serious or incompetent to bring evildoers to book. For those inclined to commit a crime, this is a green flag to take to lawlessness, whether it be chain snatchers or rapists or bride burners or hit men.


Admitted that the media is constrained from highlighting each and every conviction because of the limitations of space, time (in case of electronic media) and competing items of public interest. But exceptions can be made when it comes to serious social crimes like rape, paedophilia, bride burning and the like. Convictions and punishments in such cases should be given prominence, particularly by those local publications and TV channels which cover the region where the crimes were committed, so that at least the local folk feel the deterrent effect.


The regional media should not only convey news about the convictions but also include details of the convicted persons such as their photographs, backgrounds, criminal history and other relevant information such as their professional positions, membership of associations and parties etc. This will impress upon the viewer and reader the fact that even well-connected persons cannot escape the long arm of the law.


Speaking about the well-connected, it is only after the recent horrific rape-cum-homicide incident in a Delhi bus that such startling facts came to light that several legislators and parliamentarians are charged with rape. Even if they have not yet been convicted, the very fact that such lowly specimens were selected by their respective parties because of their “winnability” discredits the loud demands of the party leaders that the Delhi rape perpetrators should be handed the severest punishment.


This is a golden opportunity missed by our media to expose the duplicity of these political leaders. The national press should have gone to town with this information, publicizing each and every one of these tainted legislators with their photos, background, the details of the rapes they are charged with and aggressive interviews with their party leaders demanding explanations about why such anti-socials were even selected as candidates in the first place. This was an occasion for an unrelenting campaign against the tendency of our political parties to cynically compromise with evil in exchange for electoral advantage.


It is not that the Indian media is ignoring the incidents of rape. The problem lies in sporadic, episodic and uneven coverage. One of the ways the media can prod a lethargic administration and judiciary to shed their indifference is to maintain a structured data base of reported rape incidents and, off and on, keep publishing prominently such information as state/district/city -wise incidence, historical statistics like timeline of cases reported, being pursued in court, convictions obtained etc. It will take a bit of hard work to gather and organize such data but there are NGOs, women’s organizations, police and court records which can be tapped. The idea is to expose those administrations which are the most deficient in pursuing rape cases, shaming the respective political parties in government to perform better. This has to be a sustained campaign in which every newspaper, magazine and TV channel should participate.


Finally, although it is true that newspaper space and TV time are prohibitively costly, if our media is sincere about their anxiety about the welfare of women in this country, they should devote a regular amount of space /TV time every day for women’s issues, problems, accomplishments, news etc. If whole pages can be devoted to cretinous stuff like the fulminations of politicians, vacuous remarks of celebrities and nauseating overdose of cricket, perhaps half a page a day devoted to the better half of the population would not be asking for too much!


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