Gender portrayals, narratives and the Manipur media

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By Chitra Ahanthem

With the media in terms of the print and electronic being an integral part of the society today, it becomes imperative to take stock of the nature of its coverage in the context of various issues. One layer of the media scrutiny and area of discussion is on whether journalists who happen to be women bring a different perspective while reporting or writing on issues that are related to various forms of violence against women, issues like maternal health, parenting and child rights. While it is true that a journalist’s main duty is to report first and then follow up with additional reports, analysis and opinion pieces regardless of the beat and the issue that is being covered, it goes without saying that the social and cultural norms often come in the way of male journalists being able to get women to talk with them and share their experiences. This is more pronounced when the subject of a story happens to be women who have been subject to sexual violence and even holds true for those who may want to address areas of sexual reproductive health. There are various aspects to media representation of reportage on violence against women since media mindsets are also patriarchal in nature.

The other end of the spectrum in media coverage are the language papers that often falls out of the loop of being scanned by media watch groups and hence escape censure or being engaged upon for their style of coverage. One more increasing truism is the nature of what is an issue of ‘national importance’ given that what happens in Delhi often ends up being discussed, dissected and acted upon. While the nature of laws for protection of women was always an area of importance, it took the brutal case of the Delhi gang rape incident in December 2012 to bring things to a head. No other incidences of other brutal rapes have got the attention or engagement inside and outside of media circles earlier. This attitude may be what is keeping the matter of security excesses that led to violence on women in heavily militarized states including the North eastern states, Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and others being taken up with the seriousness it deserves. And yet, the spurt of ‘sensitive’ media coverage of sexual violence against women taking place in various parts of the country in the national media spaces in any case has not featured much commentary on the ways and means by which women in trouble torn areas of the country continue to be violated sexually and left without any recourse to justice.

As much as it is imperative that media reports with fairness and in keeping with what is ‘current’, it is critical that there are continuous efforts to study media reportage to be able to take stock of what is going right and what isn’t. While many point out an ‘increasing media sensitive reporting’ by taking the case of the growing spotlight on crimes against women, there are others pointing out rightly so, that current media interpretation is primarily on the brutality that women face and that there is no attempt to look at ways and means of creating media spaces for what leads to such incidences and what can be done about them. This much needed discussion in the media will take place only when there is a sensitive and aware community of journalists irrespective of what gender they belong to.

The context of limitations

Media houses do not have any guidelines for what should and what should not get into print except for a generic code that the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) with regard to reporting on sensitive issues. Co-incidentally, the purview of these ‘sensitive issues’ are focused on areas related to the situation of the media being under siege by various state and non state armed actors, with no mention of what guidelines to follow in terms of HIV/AIDS or even gender related issues and crimes. Most media practitioners except the senior staff get opportunities to go for exposure trainings or have interactions with seasoned persons in the field. There is no specialization of areas or `beats` as they are known which also means that journalists in the field also have an excuse not to be an expert and thereby excusable in case they make glaring mistakes.

But no reasoning can excuse gross violations when media representation oversteps its boundaries. The nature of reporting on incidences of rape happening in the state not only lacks sensitivity but also violates ethical as well as legal lines. While reporting on rape has indeed gone to a stage where the name of the victim is changed to protect her identity, most reports still carry the name of the parents and the locality of the victim, which is all it takes to lead the way towards revealing the woman in question. Such reports are actually punishable by law under Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which treats publication of the name of the raped woman or any matter, which may make known the identity of a raped woman as a cognizable offence punishable with imprisonment of up to two years and fine. Reporting rape cases cannot be akin to reporting other crime stories for rape carries stigma and social prejudice. This is why the Press Council of India laid down Norm No.14 which states: “Caution against identification: While reporting crime involving rape, abduction or kidnap of women/females or sexual assault on children, or raising doubts and questions touching the chastity, personal character and privacy of women, the names, photographs of the victims or other particulars leading to their identity shall not be published.”

Gender and its footprints in the media

Interestingly, the synergy of gender roles and limitations vis a vis the media space that exist in Manipur also finds it echoes in most traditional societies.   Studies have found that although the number of women working in the media has been increasing globally, the top positions in media organizations like producers, executives, chief editors and publishers are still very male dominated. This disparity is particularly evident in Africa, where cultural impediments to women fulfilling the role of journalist remain (e.g. travelling away from home, evening work and covering issues such as politics and sports which are considered to fall within the masculine domain). The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) reports that throughout the world, female journalists are more likely to be assigned ‘soft’ subjects such as family, lifestyle, fashion and arts. The ‘hard’ news, politics and the economy, is much less likely to be written or covered by women. The level of participation and influence of women in the media also has implications for media content: female media professionals are more likely to reflect other women’s needs and perspectives than their male colleagues. It is important to acknowledge, however, that not all women working in the media will be gender aware and prone to cover women’s needs and perspectives; and it is not impossible for men to effectively cover gender issues. The Global Media Monitoring Project finds that women are more likely than men to be featured as victims in news stories (with the exception of domestic and sexual violence, which receives little media coverage) and to be identified according to family status. Women are also far less likely than men to be featured in the world’s news headlines, and to be relied upon as ‘spokespeople’ or as ‘experts’. Certain categories of women, such as the poor, older women, or those belonging to ethnic minorities, are even less visible. Stereotypes are also prevalent in every day media. Women are often portrayed solely as homemakers and careers of the family, dependent on men, or as objects of male attention. Stories by female reporters are more likely to challenge stereotypes than those filed by male reporters. As such, there is a link between the participation of women in the media and improvements in the representation of women.

With a host of social and political issues prevailing in the state, media reporting is often focused on covering crime and the impact of the conflict between various armed actors: in terms of education, health, transport and communication. However, the emergence of women in the media sector in Manipur over the years have brought the voice and concerns with regard to women’s health, their value additions to society etc but a lot of ground still remains to be covered starting from the nature of how women in the state media are looked upon and the environment in which they function. For instance, there is no redressal forum for the women in the state media in case they want to register a complaint with regard to sexual harassment or of matters related to maternal health like maternity leave with pay, provisions of having child friendly services at the media workplace or to have such costs reimbursed.

Way Forward?

Given the lack of resources and professional trainings in the context of an entrenched patriarchal mindset in the larger society, the media in Manipur is as much a victim of circumstances but has a stronger responsibility to be more humane and mature than most others in the representation of the tears in the fabric of lives in Manipur. If the task is difficult because of lack of serious debates and a much needed media monitoring, then perhaps it is time that all media practitioners sat down and lay down guidelines for media coverage. For a change, such an exercise would be held not because of a threat from guns and grenades due to certain press releases not getting space but because, the media recognizes its responsibilities. At one point of time, the media was charged as guilty of being sensationalist, insensitive and prejudiced in its coverage of HIV/AIDS related issues. Over time, the engagement of various public health related agencies and various NGOs working in the sector and affected communities with the media has led to more nuanced, sensitive and informed writings. The processes involved then would have to be replicated to engage the media with gender sensitivity and then spread that awareness to the public.

In a constantly changing world, it is important that the media in Manipur also grows out of its traditional role of being a mere reporting and informing medium but grows into a space for spreading sensitivity and engaging in looking at solutions. And what better issue to start with, than gender sensitivity and breaking its stereotypes. Some of the existing media gender insensitivity that needs to be challenged includes:

1. The absence of women in the realm of news analysis programs in the radio and electronic media sectors where it is only men who are called in as experts or commentators.

2. Breaking the confidentiality of women and children who have undergone sexual trauma by publishing their names, addresses or photographs.

3. Marking out the gender of social or other crimes. To cite an example here: most newspapers carry a ‘woman drug peddler arrested’ or ‘woman cadre arrested’ while if a man is involved in such cases, the practice is to say ‘one drug peddler arrested’ or ‘cadre arrested’. The correct way is not to mark out the gender but to focus on the arrest/event cited. The story following the heading will serve to tell the reader about who is involved.

4. The thumb rule for a journalist while interviewing a woman who has undergone rape or sexual assault or any violent attack is to first ensure that the woman is in a situation to recount her ordeal to you. Sensitive reporting is when we as journalists give and take the time to follow the story and the issues we want to raise after the dust settles down.

The points raised above are not conclusive and neither are they the final barriers that needs to be taken down for a gender sensitive media to take root in the state. However, they can serve as small beginnings for as much as it is imperative that media reports with fairness and in keeping with what is ‘current’, it is critical that there are continuous efforts to study media reportage to be able to take stock of what is going right and what isn’t and more so when it comes to issues of gender. The AMWJU along with the Directorate of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) can take the lead in organizing gender sensitization trainings for reporters and desk staff but will have to seek the participation of women media practitioners in the initiative. A translation initiative of the tools and training manuals available on various sites can also be a good start to ensure that our journalists are aware of ethical practices elsewhere.

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