Our duty to inform people

THE merciless gang rape of a woman in New Delhi on Dec 16, 2012 sparked off widespread protests. The media coverage that followed was unprecedented and the vicious attack of the woman and her boyfriend was widely condemned all over the world.

In India, enormous public protests were held against the government for not providing adequate security for women. Similar protests took place in other parts of the world.

The six culprits were caught, tried and sentenced. But the public were not satisfied. Protests and criticism of the Indian government continued. Outside India, critics from think-tanks, women's organisations and rights activists were actively engaged in such protests.

Protests were also organised online. In a symbolic show of support, many social network users replaced their profile image with a black dot. Tens of thousands signed an online petition protesting the incident.

Never before in India had such a thing happened, when an outcry from a single event overwhelmed society and the nation. The protests in India also set off protests across South Asia. Similar protests were held in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

One remarkable element was observed in the protests. They had drawn people from all sections of society. In other words, unlike previous protests on similar issues, men also took part in these protests.

This incident also drew active attention from international authorities and activists. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said, "Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected."

A statement was released by the United States Embassy on the day the girl died in Singapore where she was undergoing treatment. The statement offered condolences to the girl's family and said, "we also recommit ourselves to changing attitudes of all forms of gender based violence which plagues every country in the world."

The US government also posthumously awarded the girl an International Woman of Courage Award. In the citation it was stated, "for millions of Indian women, her personal ordeal, perseverance to fight for justice, and her family's continued bravery is helping to lift the stigma and vulnerability that drive violence against the women."

These are a few reactions out of millions that flooded the print and electronic media all over the world after the woman died 13 days after the vicious attack. But every event that occurs has a negative as well as a positive effect. Many countries, especially in India, amended relevant criminal laws.

In some countries, reforms were made to provide for faster investigations, prosecution and trial. Furthermore, punishment for sexual assault has been enhanced. India has introduced so many changes in sexual assault cases that one can hardly find a parallel in the legal history of the country. Most certainly this came out because of the Delhi gang-rape case.

But the question arises – what provoked or persuaded the public to be so responsive? The answer is simple – to a great extent it was the media. In its role to inform people, it almost played "havoc". Both print and electronic media not only informed or sensitised people – they motivated the public to come out and protest.

The magic touch of media persuaded the public to respond to the incident. Some blamed the media for overplaying the story and deliberately intensifying the situation to make it worse. But that is a matter of debate, but in this gang-rape case we must recognise that the media's role has yielded some constructive and positive aspects.

These are:
Awareness. It created such an enormous response among the public – not only in India but also in the world. The whole world could not believe that it could happen in India which is the largest democracy in the world.

The media has united the people to protest for a common cause. Indian women, traditionally regarded as docile, woke up and protested. Change could happen as a direct result of the mass protest. Archaic laws have been amended.

It is usually a default reaction to blame the government for any mistake. But it has changed attitudes. People can differentiate between right and wrong.

The media also persuaded the people to establish equality at home. Many families in India are learning to treat sons and daughters equally at home.

Whatever the developments, unfortunately, violence against women continues. The media has to carry on with its duty to inform and sensitise people. Let the people separate the chaff from the wheat.

Khairul Bashar is a former journalist and has served in the UN. He lectures on Communication, Journalism and Political Science. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com