Somnath Bharti, domestic-violence-accused, racist-violence-accused former Minister of Law for Delhi, was arrested yesterday amid what has now become a familiar media circus around him. He turned up at the police station four hours after the Supreme Court’s deadline for his surrender, clamouring for attention in a red shirt, brandishing a copy of the Constitution, claiming that it was the reason he’d been avoiding arrest for a week. (As if to say: “Sorry, my copy of the Constitution was sick, I had to stay out of jail until it recovered.”) And if this isn’t enough to prove that he thinks he belongs in the entertainment column of a newspaper: just two weeks ago, Bharti responded to his wife Lipika Mitra’s accusation that he had used his dog Don in his attacks on her by ‘demonstrating’ his dog’s harmlessness to the media by ordering it to attack on camera. (The dog of course just panted, which proves nothing.)
And today, we are again set up to be entertained that the police have decided to get a veterinary doctor to examine Don to see if he does indeed attack on command.
But this case is even more serious than domestic violence. Mitra has accused Bharti of attempted murder, too. And she says she has “proof of every charge that I levelled against Somnath Bharti”. And his frivolous response channels the world’s attitude towards domestic violence in a way that no activist’s fiery speech could have demonstrated. Bharti couldn’t have played the media like this if they had decided to report him differently. But instead, he got them to follow in a long tradition of portraying domestic violence as a comic public spectacle, Punch and Judy shows being a part of that tradition.
So what is the media’s responsibility in matters of domestic violence?
Donna Fernandes, director of Vimochana, an organisation working on women’s and children’s rights, speaks about the problems with media reportage that she has experienced in her 35 years of working with victims of domestic violence.
“A private fight between husband and wife.”
“A petty quarrel.”
“A woman committed suicide because she wanted to go to a movie and her husband said no.”
These are some of the ways in which Fernandes says the media, and people, talk about a husband who beats his wife black and blue. Domestic violence is serious abuse,” she points out, but: “Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code – Cruelty to a Married Woman – is being diluted in courts,” implying that this section of the IPC isn’t being enforced in judgments the way it was meant to be. If this phenomenon exists, and it hasn’t been tracked and observed by the media, it is certainly yet another finger pointing towards the media’s blind spots where domestic violence is concerned.
About domestic abuse related suicide, she says: “No one hangs themselves for one isolated incident, whereas the media reports it like that. The media report tidbits without making an enquiry, implying that women don’t have tolerance or patience and that they are easily agitated. The police, too, cite the law, say it’s not a cognizable offence, fail to register a case until the woman is killed.” The media, it seems, follow suit rather than criticize the police’s attitude. “The media should take a little trouble,” says Fernandes. “They can’t just report that the husband suspected fidelity of his wife in a domestic violence case, because then that’s what remains with the readers. There needs to be a shift in the way men think about domestic violence.”
Fernandes also finds that domestic violence reporting should be systematic, not isolated, occasional reports in the newspaper. The media does not report rapes as isolated incidents any more – they have finally identified a pattern since Nirbhaya. Why does this not happen with domestic violence? “Domestic violence is not ‘newsworthy’. Rape is sensational, whereas domestic violence is not,” explains Fernandes. “I can say with certainty that at least a 100 women die per month in Bangalore, from burning, hanging, poison, drowning.”
‘Systemic’ violence includes the media
Fernandes says she remembers at least one case of a male journalist who himself beat his wife. And given the statistics, we cannot believe that he was an isolated case. Nor can we believe male journalists aren’t capable of, say, dowry harassment, in the form of physical or emotional abuse. Journalists aren’t purer than the rest of the population. To say that this does influences how domestic violence is reported is to mince words.
Neutral and alleged
Fernandes is tired of the word ‘alleged’, used ad nauseam in reportage. One gets the impression that after what she has seen over the decades, this purported ‘objectivity’ fails to serve any purpose. Except perhaps to suggest immediately to the reader that the violence is not real. Most people would rather not imagine a woman with bruises all over her face and body anyway. ‘Allege’ would be all the incentive they’d need to fantasize violence away. Is the performance of neutrality itself a problem in the media? Should we be ingenuously claiming neutrality with the word ‘alleged’ when the system, and the media, are already rigged against women?
This would be doubly problematic in cases where it is known that the woman was beaten. “Yes, there are two sides to a story, but that doesn’t condone the violence,” says Fernandes. “In domestic violence there cannot be objectivity. A man has no right to physical/verbal abuse.”
Besides, Fernandes feels there is a difference in reporting a lower-class man who abuses his wife and reporting, say, a Somnath Bharti. Bharti is definitely a case for ‘alleged’ in the media. Do less privileged men get the same treatment? If not, this would be yet another black mark against neutrality.
Selective reporting also manifests in the few cases in which women are the perpetrators. Fernandes points out that Raadhe Maa as a dowry harasser has been immediately pounced on by the media, and that the men involved in the Sheena Bora murder case have been shoved into the background in favour of Indrani Mukherjea.
Fernandes has conducted training sessions for the police on how to handle domestic violence cases. Would she be interested in conducting a workshop for the media too? She says yes, if there is a demand for it.
So is the 21st century media ready to stop being played by Somnath Bharti, turning us into a Punch and Judy audience in the process? Because let’s not kid ourselves: our reporting methods play a major role in how people see domestic violence.
Image: Somnath Bharti Ex MLA Delhi by Ramesh Lalwani (CC BY 2.0)