On September 25, Riyana, a 21-year-old transperson studying cosmetology, beauty, and wellness at St Joseph’s College in Bengaluru, came across a sting operation called Operation Anandi being aired on TV9, a popular Kannada channel. Riyana’s parents had been roped into the show without being told what it was about. While the parents’ faces were partly obscured, Riyana’s own photographs and name were aired to TV9’s massive audience. To Riyana’s shock, the show lied that Riyana had been forced into a sex change operation by others from the trans community.
Riyana went to the TV9 office in a state of disbelief after seeing it, but security guards didn’t allow inside. In a press conference organised by the Karnataka Transgender Samiti (KTS), Riyana said that since the show aired, Riyana hasn’t been able to go to college. Their landlord has been asking the family to leave their house.
TV9 doesn’t have a sterling reputation for ethical reporting, certainly not towards LGBT communities. In Hyderabad, for instance, they aired a programme in 2011 which was named Gay Culture Rampant in Hyderabad. For the show, employees of TV9 made fake accounts on the gay dating website Planet Romeo, getting phone numbers, photographs, and names of men on the site, and then publicised this.
Similarly, Zee Telugu, which has a show called Bathuku Jataka Bandi (which describes itself as a show where conflicting parties talk about a problem to solve it), aired an episode on October 31, with a young couple, a 20-year-old woman and a 23-year-old transman. The host told the couple that their sexual orientation, love, and identities were a “sin”. She kept referring to the transman as ‘she’, asking him if his parents didn’t “correct” him when he was a child. The host then proceeded to ask the girl if she had “no shame”, telling her she would hit her with her slippers, and asking them how they even had sex. Then the girl’s parents were told to get her married to “solve the problem”.
Sting operations already tread tricky ground. TV9’s Operation Anandi is an example of a sting operation that not only invades privacy, but also involves the manufacturing of a story for the purpose of a show. Besides displaying a terrible understanding of gender and biology, Operation Anandi had panellists who said things like, “Children fall into the clutches of transpeople who then brainwash them.” They confidently declared that transwomen use hypnotism to convince children that they too are trans and want to undergo a sex reassignment surgery. Other men on the show announced that they’ve been harassed by transwomen who opened their blouses or lifted up their saris. ‘Doctors’ explained to everyone watching that being a transperson is not natural — that it is caused by an imbalance of hormones, and can be cured if the person in question has some courage; if only the person who has been brainwashed has the ‘will power’ to come out of it.
TV9 officials also posed as film directors interested in remaking a Tamil movie on transpeople into Kannada and then approached Priyanka, a transperson working at Radio Active. Priyanka says they called her up and asked to meet her, saying that “someone like her” had given them her number. She first said she was busy but the men insisted, saying that it wouldn’t take too long, and so she relented. “I told them many things, about how nobody wants to talk about the feelings and experiences of transpeople. I thought it was a good thing they were putting in an effort to research their movie,” she said.
On September 25, Priyanka too found herself on the TV9 programme. The video, which was obviously taken with a hidden camera, had been edited to sound as though she was endorsing the view that transpeople kidnapped children and forced them to undergo sex reassignment surgeries. “How can TV9 make these judgements? Where are we to go after this judgement has been made? What kind of satisfaction do[es] the media get from spoiling our lives?” Priyanka asked angrily.
TV9’s reputation for any kind of ethical or researched reporting has always been terrible, and this isn’t only towards LGBT communities. They’re known to air sensationalist stories — in 2008, for instance, they had more than 14 cases against them for “creating panic through mischievous statements” after airing a show on a child who they reported as dying from a polio vaccination, just before a polio drive in Bangalore.
On October 21, Riyana took part in a massive rally in Bangalore organised by the Karnataka Transgender Samiti (KTS), walking from the City Railway Station to Town Hall, demanding that something be done about TV9’s programme. They have also lodged a complaint against TV9 with the Karnataka State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC). Riyana was among hundreds of transpeople that day. They were pointing out the severe violence let loose by a cruel six-hour show that ran from 10 am to 4 pm.
A day after the TV9 show aired, on September 26, six transwomen were arrested after a woman alleged that the transwomen had forced her minor son into a sex reassignment surgery. The transwomen were placed in judicial custody with serious charges of abduction, wrongful confinement, and even attempt to murder — and one of them has been put in a cell with men.
“Our 20 years of struggle and achievements have been severely impacted in the last three days,” said Chandini, a member of KTS, in a press conference that was organised soon after TV9 aired their programme. At the press conference Baby, a transwoman who had been falsely jailed for over two years in 2008 (after she was accused of having kidnapped and castrated Shilpa, a transwoman who also spoke at the press conference), said that TV9 had broadcasted incorrect reports when she had been jailed. Shilpa also said at the press conference that then Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari had her voluntary sex change forcibly reversed at Apollo Hospital after this in 2008. Shilpa said that part of that show about her had been aired again. “TV9 is showing my story again after 8 years. I don’t know if I should live or die,” she said.
And some of that grief and rage at the way TV9 depicted their community infused the large gathering at the October protest.
The protest on October 21 brought up demands for the withdrawal of fabricated cases against the trans community, and easier access to housing, employment, education, and sex reassignment surgery. Transwomen shouted in favour of the 2014 NALSA judgement in which the Supreme Court had affirmed the freedoms and rights of transpeople (including those who identify as third gender), demanding its implementation. They also called for the formation of a National and State Transgender Commission, and a Transgender Welfare Board.
At Town Hall, Akkai Padmashali, an award-winning activist and founder-member of Ondede, an organisation that aims to create awareness about sexuality, reiterated the demand for a separate cell in jail for members of the transcommunity, citing that a woman officer was not present when the six transwomen were arrested. Shilok, who also works at Radio Active, a community radio station in Bengaluru, and who was at the protest, says that since TV9’s show, many transwomen have not been able to go out and beg because they fear a backlash. Police officers now barge into transpeople’s houses saying that they are there for ‘verification’ and ‘investigation’, and threaten violence.
Too few English newspapers have covered the protest, and even fewer seem to consider it important to mention that there was one. Newspapers that did mention it ran headlines like “Transgenders to protest ‘derogatory’ portrayal by TV channel”, or within the article itself, said things like, “Angered by an ‘insensitive’ sting operation…” and blissfully implied scepticism.
At the protest, the transwomen in the crowd advised each other to always talk in groups. “Don’t be alone, and remember that anybody can twist anything you say,” they said to each other. This is hardly surprising. Poojitha, a transwoman at the protest sounded resigned when she said that on the day after this protest, things would go back to what they used to be — “We’ll go to work, somebody will harass us, someone else will quote the TV9 programme, and then we’ll come home,” she says.
Repeated attempts to contact TV9 by email and phone didn’t receive a response. However, a TV9 reporter at the press conference organised by the KTS also claimed, “We have telecast positive stories about the transgender community. Parents who spoke on the program came willingly and they weren’t forced. Nobody was targeted specifically either; we have also been supportive of the fight for your rights.”
As Padmashali said, forcing some of the media at the protest to pause for a moment, “What does it mean for the media to come and invade the privacy of an already oppressed community? Where do we go from here?”