Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 10 |Issue 26 | July 08, 2011 |


 Cover Story
 Special Feature
 Current Affairs
 One Off
 Straight Talk
 Star Diary
 Human Rights
 Book Review

   SWM Home


Journalism to Protect Victims

Rifat Munim

Rumana Manzur, lies helplessly in LabAid Hospital. Photo: Star File

It seems appropriate to begin this write-up with a reference to late Monazatuddin, a journalist of the Daily Sangbad, whose journalistic career was a life-long struggle to ensure justice for the victims of violence or exploitation. Whenever he reported on a case of violence against women or girls, he knew full well that it had to be dealt with very carefully; false allegations could invariably provide new fodder for gossip that would victimise the victim further. Today, Bangladesh has seen a remarkable rise in both print and electronic media, where a competition to outdo each other in terms of news presentation reigns high. As a result, the ethical standards represented by Monazatuddin at times give way to sensationalising the news as much as possible, amplifying the victim's suffering rather than helping to alleviate it.

A stark instance of the insensitivity of some sections of the media has been seen after the news of Rumana Manzur's assault, came out on June 13. Manzur, an assistant professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka (DU), was brutally assaulted on June 5 by her husband Hasan Sayeed who shoved his fingers into her eyes causing blindness to both of her eyes. A close scrutiny of the reports published thereafter reveals how they have further traumatised the victim and her family. This is not to say that the reports did little to take it to the court and ensure justice. Quite the opposite, it was after the reports were published that the High Court rule came on June 15. The rule also propelled the police officers into a flurry of actions including Sayeed's arrest and remand. Still, a certain trend in a number of reports appears to have aggravated her sufferings.

“First, I must say that journalists have done a great job", says Manzur Hossain, Rumana's father. "Yet, I'm sorry to say that some of them have spread rumours about my daughter that are totally false.”

Most of the reports published before the arrest of the accused had an emotional overtone depicting Sayeed as a soulless brute who should be apprehended and tried immediately. A glance at some of the headlines will testify this: 'The malevolent husband damaged both of Rumana's eyes' ('Rumanar dui chokh noshto kore diechhe pashanda shwami'); ''He chewed off part of my nose,''; and 'We demand trial of the vicious husband' (Pashanda Shwamir bichar chai), among many others. These reports were based on the allegations made by Rumana and her father, and rightly so, since the accused was absconding at that time. However, as soon as Sayeed was arrested, the narrative in the reports which had hitherto reviled Sayeed dramatically reversed, focusing solely on a number of self-contradictory stories fabricated by Sayeed in his defence. Except for one or two reports, most others highlighted Sayeed's cooked-up versions of Rumana's extra-marital affair with an Iranian man while she was in Canada on a scholarship to complete her PhD. Some took an apparently neutral stance by not dwelling on this for a long time yet giving away all the details. At their worst, some went as far as making up sensational stories out of it, for example, consider the following headings: 'Rumana loved her Irani boyfriend, not me' and 'Hasan alleges betrayal by Rumana'. But in all of them, the allegations were described elaborately without any verification or remarks from the other party involved. Nor was there any critical thinking as to the relevance of such an affair to violence or the impact of such an unverified claim on the case as well as on the victim. Whatever reason there was, the tone of the reports unmistakably implied that if the claim of Rumana's extra-marital affair was true, then Sayeed's brutalities would be justified on the grounds of disloyalty.

Immediately after the publication of those reports a section of readers all over the country formed online groups in blogs or websites such as facebook, sachalayatan etc. and posted their comments buttressing Sayeed, justifying his malevolence and saying that it was Rumana who should be brought to book. Of course, there were opposing groups demanding Hasan's trial, but the clamour of the pro-Sayeed groups (who do not even know him or her) was quite outstanding.

Students of Dhaka University demanding trial of the accused. Photo: Dtar File

Such consequences call to question the role of journalists in reporting gender-sensitive cases specifically, and any special case generally. It also brings to the fore various aspects of journalistic ethics. Shameem Reza, assistant professor of Mass Communication and Journalism at DU says that in reporting any special case of violence or exploitation, journalists must pay proper attention to certain aspects of the victim's privacy so that s/he is not victimised a second time. When it comes to gender issues, he thinks that female victims should generally be empathised with because they are the ones who are always subjected to domestic violence.

“The brutally assaulted Rumana belongs to one of the oppressed groups deserving special treatment. Unfortunately, in reporting her case some journalists have focused so much on her private matters including her scholarship and the false claim of her extra-marital affair that I think is a violation of her rights,” he says.

Quarratul-Ain-Tahmina, a senior journalist at the Prothom Alo, says that since journalists' work touches a lot of people having a long-lasting effect on their life, they must be responsible towards their work and maintain a certain ethical standard. The core of journalistic ethics, she adds, is the same and should not vary from one case to another. About the case of Rumana, she says,

“Here the crime of an assault was committed within the family which makes it very sensitive. It needs to be reported properly since vigilance over how a crime is dealt with is in public interest. But the reporter must take utmost care not to intrude upon the victim’s privacy unwarrantedly and above all not to cause her any further harm or add to her trauma. The reporter must weigh the impact of her/his professional performance on the victim's children, parents or other near ones. Any photograph or comment that relates to the victim must be critically and sensitively judged and handled accordingly.”

She, however, believes that the accused must be allowed to defend himself otherwise his 'right of reply' will be violated. In so doing, she cautions, it should not be forgotten that an accused may fabricate anything in his defence; so the journalists dealing with such a case should keep several things in mind.

“Fair journalism mandates that the accused be given her/his right to speak for himself. In this case, while reporting Sayeed's allegation, the first thing to be considered is its relevance to the issues at hand. His allegation is totally irrelevant to the violence he committed. What if she had an affair? If it was true, would it justify his crime? If he comes up with the allegation unprovoked, a reporter cannot possibly omit it from the report. But how much importance should it get or how it is contextualised is the crucial point. It must be made clear that this is merely an allegation and has no relevance considering the context. It must never be blown out of proportion or depicted in a sensational way. It could merit just a couple of sentences in the story. If this became a point of contention, then the victim or someone on behalf of her should have had the last words.”

Shamim Reza finds it highly preposterous on the part of the accused to relate such an act of violence with private affairs. He says, “Marital problems should be resolved inside the family. If failed, it should be taken to the legal counsellors who may then suggest them to separate or divorce. But he has no right to assault her for a marital problem.” About reporting Sayeed's allegations, he says, “I'm astounded to find out that none of the reporters asked Sayeed if he had tried to resolve the problems on a familial level or in court. Besides, his claims cannot be substantiated, so how can one report it?”

In our country most media houses do not have any written or institutionalised code of conduct. Neither is there any monitoring body to supervise the ethical issues in reporting. “Media houses should have institutional codes of conduct. Besides, the associations, unions or press clubs of journalists should develop self-regulatory codes and ensure that their members follow these,”says Tahmina. Concurring with Tahmina, Reza adds, “Every journalist should be trained especially about journalistic ethics before he is appointed as a reporter.”

Thanks to the proud pro-Sayeed bloggers, we now know of the impact of those reports on the cultural level where women are still perceived as the subjugated sex and their essence confined to some stereotyped roles. When this patriarchal mindset of the public will change is perhaps a matter of centuries. Meanwhile, the onus is on the journalists to protect the victim, not to provide readers with fodder for ugly gossip.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2011