Dalit Journalists, Intellectuals on How Media Covered Hathras Gangrape

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By Rajan Raj

India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) recently charged four men from a dominant caste with gang-raping and murdering a 19-year-old woman, an “outcaste” Dalit, in northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Hathras village in September. The agency also indicted the state police for not doing their duty. Many believe that it was mainstream media’s coverage of the incident that compelled the State to take this case seriously. But did they actually do a commendable job?

On the contrary, for some Dalit journalists and intellectuals, Hathras was yet another incident of “caste-blindness” and “privileged ignorance” of the “upper-caste-dominated” media towards the “institutionalised casteism” in the country.

The press in India is seen as divided – while many of the mainstream media groups are viewed as pro-governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or at least soft towards it, some newer ones, most of them online, are seen as anti-BJP.

But how fair is it to call mainstream journalists casteist when they came out on the roads to ensure justice for the victim of a caste-based crime? And why are the journalists who held the administration accountable for illegalities being called out as the culprits of institutional casteism?

“Senior reporters of mainstream media organisations initially went to Hathras to give ‘balanced’ coverage to the incident,” claimed Meena Kotwal, a journalist who is Dalit and was formerly associated with BBC. “These organisations knew that the incident had shown the government under a bad light and they needed to back the government.”

“Therefore,” she continued, “one can notice that no stringent questions were asked to any minister of the Yogi Adityanath-led-government, let alone the chief minister himself. Instead, officers from the district administration had to take the brunt of the incident. The blame was put on officers in the district administration as if they had taken all the decisions personally.”

She added that some journalists could be heard saying repeatedly that adequate actions were being taken by the higher authority, “but they never really named this ‘higher’ authority.”

The media, she pointed out, gave more coverage to a letter that was written by one of the accused to claim his innocence than to the dying declaration of the victim, which, the CBI said, was “key evidence.”

“Just think about the mental and emotional state of a family that has just lost their daughter to a brutal crime of rape and murder. What must they be going through when people of an apparently ‘superior community’ were trying to intimidate them from speaking against the injustice. Have you ever seen a prime-time debate dedicated to the problem of this persistent oppression in our society? It’s pathetic that the Indian media tried to ‘balance out’ a crime as heinous as rape, or even worse, murder.”

She added, “Although none of this is new in our social paradigm – India has witnessed constant oppression and deep-rooted casteism against the Dalit and Adivasi (tribal or indigenous) communities – seldom do the cases of such atrocities get such media attention and whenever they do, the ‘balanced version’ is what makes its way to the viewers and readers.”

Anil Chamadia, a journalist and media educator, said he believes that mainstream media organisations hadn’t sent their journalists to Hathras to ensure justice for the victim.

“News channels had sent their senior anchors to Hathras to showcase them as champions of resistance. These channels showed footage of Opposition leaders trying to enter a village, which was under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (an order to prohibit the assembly of four or more people), but, initially, they didn’t telecast the gatherings and rallies held by people from the upper-caste in support of the accused. It’s only when the news of these meetings got viral on social media that the channels were compelled to cover it,” Chamadia said.

“We should get this straight,” he added, “that Indian media can be sympathetic towards the Dalits, but they can never work towards ensuring justice for the oppressed. Mainstream media decide to cover incidents of caste-based oppression only when they see that the news has reached people through social media and the public-outrage is taking the shape of a mass movement.”

If media organisations were so earnest in covering the Hathras case, Kotwal asked, why didn’t they send a reporter or an anchor from the Dalit community to cover the incident?

Sukumar Sen, a professor of political science at Delhi University, called the Hathras case a classic example of how the “upper-caste-dominated media” is “indifferent” towards the plight of the marginalised.

“The angle of casteism was not highlighted,” Sen argued. “One should go to Hathras to see how the upper-caste majority discriminates against Dalit people. Media professionals should have taken the responsibility of putting out research- and data-backed stories. Instead, they chose to turn a blind eye to this oppression. This happened because the accused had an upper-caste identity.”

He added, however, that “for the first time in all these years, I observed that a national news channel had invited some panellists from Dalit, tribal and other lower-caste communities to discuss and debate over the issues faced by Dalits. This sound initiative in itself is huge progress and makes us hopeful for the social awakening of prominent media houses.”

Usually, he continued, news channels invite experts mostly from “upper-castes” for debates.

There is a lack of Dalit and tribal representation in media houses, Chamadia said, quoting a 2019 study by Oxfam India. “Of the 121 newsroom leadership positions – editor-in-chief, managing editor, executive editor, bureau chief and input/output editor – across the newspapers, news channels, news websites and magazines under study, 106 are occupied by journalists from the upper castes and none by those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes… Three out of every four anchors of flagship debates are upper-caste. Not one is Dalit, Adivasi, or OBC (Other Backward Classes),” stated the study.

Kotwal said while there are many journalists from “lower” castes, they are generally not given a chance to put their thoughts across.

“Even if they find something wrong in the way an incident is reported, they do not feel empowered enough to speak,” she added. “And if  they speak, they are not heard.”

Credit: Stories Asia

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