In Assam, journalists are accused of driving a rape survivor to attempt suicide

‘Do you not want justice?’ they asked the minor girl’s family. ‘We have come to give you justice. We will get you justice, talk to us, talk to us.’

BySupriti David
In Assam, journalists are accused of driving a rape survivor to attempt suicide
Shambhavi Thakur
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On August 5, five reporters arrived at the doorstep of a rape survivor’s family in Assam. “Do you not want justice?” they shouted, and demanded to be let in. Scared and ashamed by the intrusion, the survivor, a minor girl, ran away that very night – to end her life.

“When we asked her why she ran away, she said, ‘The media came to our home. Now I have no dignity left and because of me you are being troubled. If I die, then you will no longer be troubled. The media will not bother you. You will not have to fight on my behalf,” said Pari Saikia, a journalist and a fellow at Impulse NGO, who is close to the survivor’s family.

She recounted a pattern of gross violation of the survivor's rights and legal procedures that began when her family first went to file an FIR after her disappearance on July 10.

‘Aap ghar jao, khud dhundo’

On July 10, when the girl’s worried family and their neighbour went to a Guwahati police station – which Newslaundry isn’t identifying to protect the family’s identityto file a missing persons report, they were told the police were busy solving a murder in Guwahati and that they should go and find the girl themselves.

Three days later, without help from the police, the family found the girl. She revealed that she had been raped by their neighbour, the one who had accompanied the family to the police station. After she recounted the horror that she had been through, the family immediately took her to the police station, this time to register a rape case.

“The survivor’s sister had to literally plead the police to file the complaint,” recounted Pari. “They finally wrote something, assured them that they would be given a copy of the FIR and told them to go home. The family asked the investigating officer for a copy of the FIR the following day, however she started avoiding the subject.”

A month later, the family found out that the accused had been granted anticipatory bail. The next day the police showed up at their home demanding to conduct an ossification test – which is used to determine age – because the accused believed that the survivor was not a minor. Her age had not been contested until that day.

The family called Pari to let her know what had happened. Pari immediately informed the National Commission for Women and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. She also reached out to the lawyer Seema Samridhi, known for being the counsel for the family of the 2012 Delhi gangrape and murder.

Pari said the police only reacted after the lawyer reprimanded them for having complete disregard for law and procedure, as they had not only failed to produce the survivor before the Child Welfare Committee but also not given the family a copy of the FIR even after a month.

“Within half an hour of the call the police came to the survivor’s home and gave them a copy,” Pari continued. “It was then they saw the police had filed a case only under section 363, that is, a missing persons case. And it was only in a handwritten addition right before the copy was handed to the family that they mentioned the POCSO Act section.”

Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code punishes kidnapping. The POCSO Act is a law to prevent sexual offences against children.

‘Do you not want justice?’

On August 4, a few days after the family received the FIR copy, Samsul Rehman, a reporter for the Assamese daily Amar Asom and a stringer with the local TV news channel DY365, arrived at the survivor’s home after learning of her ordeal from the police.

Asked how he found out about the girl, Samsul said, “One of the police officers, a good man, told me about the case and we agreed that what had happened with the girl was not right. I have a daughter as well and so it affected me. I asked him for some data and he gave me the case number and told me to get more information from a man named Sikmat Ali, who was a part of the nagrik committee. I went to him and said there has been a rape case here recently, what is the survivor’s address. He told me.”

A nagrik committee is a resident welfare and community policing body chosen by consensus.

Seeing the reporter on their doorstep shocked the family. When Samsul said he wanted to talk to them about the matter, they were furious and shouted at him until he had stepped off their veranda.

Recounting the incident, Samsul told Newslaundry, “I have been a journalist for 21 years and covered several stories about rape. I know how to do my job and I did not like their behaviour. She asked me why I had come to their house and I told her it was my job, my duty.”

The family also claimed that Samsul took pictures of them and their home without consent. He, however, refuted the charge.

As soon as the journalist had left, the family informed Pari. “The girl was in shock. Since being rescued, she had barely eaten, slept or spoken. She was totally disturbed,” Pari said. “However, on the day that Samsul visited them, she got furious. She yelled at her family, telling them that they were supposed to keep her safe, that they promised her justice so how could they have let the media find out.”

Furious, Pari contacted Kumud Das, a senior editor at DY365 and told him what Samsul had done. He assured her that appropriate action would be taken against the reporter.

While Samsul confirmed that Kumud had indeed called and asked him about the incident, he maintained that the complaint made to the editor was that he had demanded money from the family. He, therefore, wanted to file an FIR against the girl’s family for lying about his intentions. Pari, on the other hand, alleged that Samsul had called a distant relative of the family and threatened them with an FIR for “misbehaving with him”.

On August 5, Pari continued, “Samsul Rehman landed up again at the family’s home with four other reporters from different media publications. They said, ‘Do you not want justice? We have come to give you justice. We will get you justice, talk to us, talk to us’. It was at that moment that things got out of hand.”

At 8 that night, the girl jumped out the bathroom window, and ran away. The family told Pari she had been restless all day after the reporters showed up.

“When she ran away, the family had a strong feeling that she wouldn’t come back. Since July she had tried to self-immolate, twice. Both times the family saved her and reported it to the police but they didn’t do anything,” Pari said. “After the family told me, I called everyone I could from my end to put pressure on the police to find her and bring her back. After 48 hours, at around 11 o’clock, she was found. She came back on her own and was in a very bad state. When we asked her where she was, she said she had jumped into a pit full of water with the intention of killing herself, but I guess it wasn’t deep enough so she survived. She was there for two days, in the pit, unconscious.”

Pari and the family both believe that it was the intrusion and insensitive behaviour of the mediapersons that had led to the minor attempting suicide. “Who would have been held responsible had something happened to the child?” Pari asked. “At most the mediapersons would be suspended, aur kya hoga? Humara toh law hi aisa hai. Koi awaz hi nahi uthata hai.

‘We didn’t do anything wrong’

Samsul disagreed that the reporters were to blame for the girl’s distress. “We have been to the homes of so many survivors over the years. If they didn’t want to give us information, they would politely let us know that it was a family matter, and we would leave. But this family’s behaviour was offensive. The sister was using abusive words despite being a girl. We didn’t do anything wrong. I am a reporter. If I need to get information, I have to go to the survivor’s house, right?”

As to why he had returned the next day, he maintained that it was the family’s lawyer who had told him to revisit their home and speak with them. He also claimed that the reason he brought more reporters with him was that he feared “the family wanted to get him entangled in the rape case”.

To Pari, though, Samsul reportedly said he “had gone to do right by them, for their own good”.

Samsul’s story about the case was carried by Amar Asom but not by DY365. He made an “error” in the story, he admitted, naming a woman who he believed was an accomplice of the accused. But the paper has not apologised for the error or made a statement about carrying the story.

Did he know that the girl had run away, reportedly because of his intrusion? Samsul replied that he had been informed about it by a human rights group. “I did not talk to the survivor, only wanted to know the details about the situation through the family. It’s the duty of journalism to shake institutions like the police and give the story publicity,” he added. “We did not want to talk to the survivor. And why would we? She’s a child.”

What about the guidelines for reporting on sensitive subjects such as rape that the news organisations he works for have in place? Samsul claimed that reporters have been told that only using the survivor’s name, photograph and address in a story was considered wrong. But finding the address and seeking to get information out of the family was acceptable.

‘Journalists aren’t supposed to give justice’

What are the limits of journalism? Does being a reporter give you a free pass to invade the space of a family that is hurting? Pari said the reason why such behaviour from journalists has become the norm is the complete lack of the enforcement of reporting guidelines, especially when it concerns issues of gender-based violence.

After the 2012 Delhi gangrape case, she pointed out, there were media tool kits introduced by several prominent bodies on how to report sensitively. In reality, however, the only place she has seen the rules being enforced to some extent are metropolitan cities. She went on to say that while she had great respect for local journalism, it was severely lacking in enforcing guidelines.

“Journalists are not supposed to give justice. Since when has the media become the court?” she asked. “This is happening everywhere and this is not done. I feel ashamed of being called a mediaperson. I haven’t seen any journalist jailed for misreporting or for fake news, but what I have seen is investigative journalists who question the government being jailed and punished. Media has to be responsible and own their mistakes collectively.”

At some level, she argued, Samsul became an easy target. In vilifying him, the failure of media houses that allowed this to happen was overshadowed. It is because of such lack of accountability that Samsul could do what he did.

As part of a campaign to rectify this lacuna, Pari and a few fellow journalists are going through years of misreportage on gender violence in the Northeast to point out the blatant disregard for human rights of the survivors and their families. She hoped that the campaign would lead to much-needed realisation in the journalist fraternity about adhering to ethical standards.

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