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Media and Rape in Pakistan

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FARZANA IQBAL
AAMIR QURESHI via Getty Images
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What happened to Farzana Perveen, a 25-year old pregnant woman, beaten to death in broad daylight outside the Lahore High Court, was cold-blooded murder and nothing else. Which is why she should be called a victim of murder, not "honor killing" as the media is currently reporting. The phrase honor killing itself needs to be reassessed as it brings with it a tacit legitimacy. We can generate a debate on the beastly way her body was tormented and the warped notions her family and relatives had of "honor." But to say so flagrantly and repeatedly, that this was a "case of honor killing" should be unacceptable.

So why such focus on the victim and not as much on the attackers? Farzana's lifeless body, tormented and tortured, as it lay rutted on a pavement has done its rounds on the social media. Standard reaction has ensued with protests on the streets and social media. Emotions have fueled anger in people, and high-profile officials have condemned the inhumane act. The Chief Minister of Punjab has called Farzana's stoning to death an act of terrorism and ordered trial in anti-terror court. But after a few days, weeks, when another story monopolizes media and we hear less of Farzana's attackers, should only media be held responsible for the waning coverage? No. Because this is where the law enforcement comes in. When the country's legal system will fail to catch perpetrators, fail to arrest all of them, fail to hold a trial and prosecute, there will be nothing for the media to report.

In my conversation with a news director of a leading channel, I was told that his channel carried out an experiment regarding rape incidents and follow-up news. In 2013 in Lahore, the same city where Farzana was bludgeoned to death, people were outraged when a five-year-old child was gang raped and found outside a hospital. This channel started a countdown of day one, day two, day three to see whether the perpetrators were arrested and a legal proceeding would begin. This practice continued till day 45, but there was no development. Reporters stopped following the news and the channel stopped airing it.

Whether it is a developing country like Pakistan, or a developed one like the United States, gender sensitization is still something we're struggling with. In August 2012, in Stuebenville, Ohio, an intoxicated high school girl was sexually assaulted by two 16-year-old footballers. It was documented on social media and galvanized a conversation on rape culture. CNN was criticized for its coverage being too sympathetic to the footballers who were found guilty. Media put emphasis on what the girl drank and a presenter said it was "difficult to watch those young men break down." So at a certain point, the accused garnered sympathy and the victim's plight became an afterthought.

In Pakistan, the problem is also that there are not enough women in media. Those who report, write, edit and execute news are mostly men. During my stint as a producer in a local news channel, I observed men treat the news of a woman being raped just as they would report India defeating Pakistan in a cricket match. Sentiments are similar, anger fuels emotions, there is fleeting disappointment and then the blame game begins. Where sentiments are similar, so is the execution. Tragic, dramatic music is looked up to play in the background. With so much fodder for media, there is a lot to do. Visual effects, close ups, the usual. This is not to say that every man present in the newsroom is desensitized, but the problem exists noticeably. Sometimes media hypes up rape stories only because they would sell, not because there is sensitization in the newsroom. But does intention matter? Perhaps it does, because that reflects in the execution and the language used in regards to the victim and perpetrators.

Mainstream media reflects society and culture, and we still have one of shaming and blaming women. News on women is still seen as soft news that does not appeal to the majority of viewers. Perhaps it is time to appeal to the rest. Instead of televising victims and women only, let's start televising the consequences that men would face when they commit an egregious, heinous act. It might not leash the animal within, but it might make a few prospective murderers and rapists consider the humiliation they'll face publicly-if caught. In Pakistan right now, there is absolutely no fear of being caught and no dread of being punished. This is a big problem. This is what we witnessed in the brazen act of murdering a woman outside a court in a prime center of the city. Right now, the law enforcement needs to do its job effectively so the media can report follow up news, consequences of the crime and give fair coverage to issues of violence against women.