A debate about the status of women and media ethics in modern Indian society has been triggered by the molestation of a 17-year-old girl in Assam. The footage was filmed and broadcast by a local TV station.
The incident happened in Guwahati on July 9 in what is usually considered a safe and central part of the city. The girl in question was coming out of a bar in the evening when a group of men started teasing and molesting her, beating her and pulling at her clothes. Later, she was found to have a number of cuts and bruises on her body, as well as what might have been cigarette burns.
Not only did a crowd gather to watch, not only was the nearest police station barely a kilometer away, not only did the police send only a few constables to the spot almost an hour after being informed: the worst part of the incident is that a journalist by the name of Gaurav Jyoti Neog from a local television station called News Live was present at the scene and could think of nothing better to do than start filming the girl's predicament with his mobile phone while asking for a camera team to be sent from the headquarters.
The news channel broadcast an edited version of the footage while the "uncut version" was uploaded onto YouTube along with the victim's personal details and pictures. In further violation of India's privacy laws, a visiting member of the National Commission for Women (NCW) later named the victim at a press interaction.
The Guwahati molestation scandal risked being politicized from the moment it broke in the national and international media. Even 10 days later, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still accusing the ruling Congress of having reduced the National Commission for Women to a "political tool."
The BJP has previously alleged that News Live is owned by a senior Congress minister in Assam and that the culprits included Youth Congress members.
Incriminations and recriminations have been flying through the air in the remote northeastern state, with News Live's former editor-in-chief Atanu Bhuyan hinting that interference from Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, and not "moral responsibility" was the reason behind his voluntary resignation.
Meanwhile, Akhil Gogoi, an activist for the Right to Information movement in India, has alleged that Neog, the TV reporter involved in the original incident, might have instigated the molestation on July 9.
'The age of adolescence'
The Broadcast Editors Association (BEA) of India is about to send a three-member team of senior editors on a fact-finding mission to Guwahati. Dibang , the former chief of NDTV India and a member of the BEA team, acknowledged in a telephonic interview with DW that "the role of the media is in question."
"Electronic media in India is a very young medium. I always say that it is crossing the age of adolescence," he said.
Among the "symptoms of adolescence," Dibang counted the process of Indian media shifting away from hard news and focusing instead on crime or trivial stories about fairies coming to haunted houses or an hour-long fight between a dog and a snake, all on prime time.
Television was a "fiercely competitive medium," he added, saying that many employees lacked necessary training about media ethics.
A message in every home
Prominent women's rights activist Dr Ranjana Kumari and president of Women Power Connect India found stronger words to judge the incident in Guwahati. She said it reflected "the sadist mentality of a group of sex-starved people" and she demanded "zero tolerance."
"You can't put a policeman in every home but you can put the message in every home that this is an absolutely intolerable crime," she said.
Kumari also said it was a "shocker" that this had happened in Assam, where the presence of women is "generally more acceptable in the marketplace compared to other northern states such as Punjab, Haryana, UP or Bihar. The northeast has better gender equality as a value in their society."
In conclusion, she said that women's rights still had a "long, long way to go."
Author: Arun Chowdhury
Editor: Anne Thomas