Honour in the News: Media Representation of Honour Killings
The article focuses on the recent spurt of news on honour based crimes in India and the way the mass media has represented stories on these happenings. Though honour based violence is not something new; it has caught media attention only recently. Sporadic cases of honour killings especially in the northern parts of the country have been in news and have gone ahead to define the concept in the minds of Indians. Through an extensive literature review, the paper seeks to examine the quality of coverage by the media as also the relation between media and popular culture. Reporting by the media has played an important role in developing an understanding on the issue but at the same time there are concerns of biased and lop-sided coverage which have hurt the larger cause. Mass media has a deep impact on culture and vice versa. The manner in which media talks about such social crimes builds public opinion as also educates masses about regressive social practices around them. A debate on notions of culture, honour, society and inclusiveness is sparked when the media not only comes up with stories on such killings but also takes up a stand against them. Audience perception about honour crimes is definitely shaped by news which they read and views which they hear in the media. The paper tries to look at the issue not from the angle of ‘newsworthiness’ but as a larger responsibility of the fourth estate in the country to bring such social malpractices to the limelight.
Why only Honour Killings?
If you happened to scan recent editions of Indian newspapers and hear news on prime time Television (TV), chances are likely that you would read or hear about the incidences of honour killings taking place in some parts of the country. Suddenly, the media has woken up to the reality of these killings which were taking place even as they were not making news. Honour killings have existed irrespective of cultural and religious differences. But these are only the extreme form of violence in a bid to protect honour. Honour based violence has rarely been the subject of media coverage. It is only when cases of killings appeared quite too often, that the media chose to give it some print and broadcast space. Honour based violence includes forced marriages, deprivation of education and freedom, lack of freedom to pursue one’s ambitions and choose one’s partner, giving in to demands of dowry, mutilation, females being sold off to slavery etc. It is only now that the media is freely talking about issues which it ought to have raised pretty earlier. Having said this, there is no denying the fact that the young populace has come to know about such incidences only through active reporting by the media. Had it not been for the media, these cases of killings would have remained forever in the dark. Hence, media attention to such serious issues does raise awareness and play a role in mobilizing public opinion against such regressive practices. But is that enough? At a time when we are deliberating the social responsibility of corporates, we must not forget that media houses today are no less corporate; concerned about profits in the business of news. In this process, however, they are losing sight of their duty towards the society. We shall examine how and what the media is saying about honour killings and relate it to the larger role of the media in the development process.
Making News Waves
The media is undoubtedly besotted by the news of young couples who have eloped to resist pressure and violence from their communities for marrying outside the purview of caste. Certainly they are not smitten by the desire to tell their audiences about continuing social violence in the name of caste and religion even as they narrate stories of India’s GDP growth. It is more about the fact that crime makes news and this news sells. This news fetches high TRP and readership. More so if you present it sensationally with a topping of gossip and spice on the pretext of readers being interested in such stories! The example of a media circus in the Aarushi Talwar murder case of Noida shows that the media is not interested in pushing for investigations which might lead to the truth. Instead, the effort is to present their own truth and fill news slots. The events of honour killings have been dealt with no differently. These killings are covered by crime beat reporters as regular stories of crime with no intention to uncover an incident which is not a simple crime but a social malaise. As in any regular crime story, all the reporter seeks to find out is how and why the crime took place so that it can be placed in the form of a catchy headline. The story of Rizwanur Rehman’s death in Kolkata in 2007 was initially lost in the inside pages of the newspapers as a regular crime story. It was only later that the media was able to highlight that it was an incident of honour based crime as Rizwanur had married his student Priyanka, a daughter of the famous Todi business family.
In a discussion organized by the Lucknow based Association for Advocacy of Legal Initiatives (AALI), the role of the media in reporting such cases was under scrutiny. It was found that the media exhibits irresponsible behaviour while reporting such stories. The serious nature of the killings of eloped couples was toned down to give space to titillating headlines like 'Bhai ne premdiwani behen ka sir kalam kar diya', and 'Larki ke bhaiyo ne utara isshk ka bhoot. This only marginalized the issue of the gross human rights violations in such cases. It reduced the news to a petty crime and was presented in such a way that would delight the readers of tittle-tattle. This is a disservice to the cause of even bringing the news to audiences. We may do well to recall the example shown in the film ‘Peepli Live’ where a serious concern about farmers in debt committing suicides was reduced to a TRP fetching item by the media. Such should not be the fate of honour killings of individuals and couples.
Why does the media have such a callous attitude when all it needs is some digging out of details and bringing out facts? The first problem encountered is the lack of resources and time which journalists face when they wish to cover such news. Their dependence on sources from the law agencies also limits the scope of the story. Lack of willingness to engage in field research, the tendency to treat these stories as regular incidence of crime hamper the reporting of the ‘real’ facts. So, the onus is not just on journalists who are out on the field but also on editors who must overcome concerns of deadlines and space to give proper and balanced coverage to these incidences. Of course, there are limitations that the media itself faces and hence it cannot cover each and every incident of honour killing. Thus, stories in the media must only be regarded as representative of this horrific practice.
The Stories of Honour
By and large, the media is not just an agency which informs us about what is happening around us, but one which can take up the cause of public good if needed. The concepts of ‘Trial by the Media’ and ‘Media Activism’ can be very well applied to the incidences of honour killings. In many instances, for example the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo murder cases, it was the media which brought out the truth and built pressure on the government and the judicial system to bring the guilty to book. If it had not been for the media’s efforts; the rich and the powerful would have continued to exercise influence over the country’s justice system. However, there is another side to the story as well since media’s involvement in such cases is shrouded with concerns of ethics and morality. Critics believe that the media should restrict its role to reporting the facts and not indulge in value judgements.
The tone of the media while it reports honour killings should be of condemnation of this practice. At the same time they should steer clear of stereotypes. The most common stereotype that the English media adheres to while describing such killings is that they are a common rural phenomenon. They make lay audiences believe that honour killings can take place only in rural and backward settings. This creates a gross misperception about the rural population among urban dwellers. The killings of Nirupama Pathak, a young Indian journalist and Nitish Katara, a young business executive from Delhi took place in urban cities. However, the English media has hammered us with too many stories on honour killings in Haryana and the Khap Panchayats that they have come to represent the entire scenario of honour killings in India. It would be incorrect to presume that such killings take place only in the rural heartland of the country where backwardness and caste system is expected to prevail. The media must also highlight cases of educated, urban, middle class families where such incidences have happened. Sadly though, the media’s story of honour killings ends up being prejudiced and lop sided.
Sans Borders – Coverage in International Media
It would be essential to note that honour killings are not specific to any country or any religion. Even the international media has been talking about the issue for quite a long time. However, some people are of the view that only some honour killings find their way into news whereas some others disappear into oblivion. Author of the book ‘Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman’, Phyllis Chesler argues that while The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times covered honour killings of Hindu couples in India, they never mentioned a word about honour killings in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Jordan etc. Thus, it is the media which decides which story should reach the audiences and which should not. The international media has often described honour killings as the ‘clash of cultures’ due to the existence of migrants and minorities in foreign lands. Coverage by the media has often painted a very grim picture of ethnic minorities in western countries. In multi-cultural countries like Great Britain and the USA, the media’s representation of honour killings has influenced public opinion of Asians and other migrants who are stereotyped as barbaric, uncivilized and non-progressive. There have also been reports of some cases being projected as honour killings by the media when they were actually not. Such speculative news can do much harm and hence the media should first verify its facts before reporting the event. Media does tend to have its own agendas and resorts to gate keeping when covering these stories. Worth noticing here is that honour killings have received media glare not only in Indian media but also in the international media. Media must stand against the biases of religion, caste, community etc and should look into these incidences from a human dimension.
When the media reports honour, the need of the hour is careful and sensitive reporting so as not to incite further violence and in some cases also not to risk the lives of the people involved. The media can be an ally of the law agencies in procuring information about such incidences. Many a times we have seen that journalists have access to information which even the police do not possess and in such times the media can be of great help in saving some one’s life. Apart from mainstream media, other alternative media outlets like new media and community media can also be used to sensitize people on this issue. It is commendable that apart from the press and TV, other forms of media are also taking up the issue of honour killings. Through the medium of fiction, serials and films have managed to raise disturbing questions about the heinous crimes that are occurring in the name of honour. Some examples are ‘Rishton Se Badi…Pratha’ a daily soap on Colors channel, films like Aakrosh and ‘When We Leave’ have also tackled the subject boldly. While it is not expected of the media to bring an end to the culture of honour killings, it is certainly the media’s role to come up with true and responsible accounts of the same. This time it is the honour of the media which is at stake!