The 'witches' let down by the media

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Regional Media | 30/10/2014
Witch hunting is a disturbing crime against women in Assam, but the media's approach has been disappointingly simplistic and crass,
says TERESA REHMAN (PIX: Women branded as witches speak at a consultation).
Last week (October 24) a TV channel in Assam reported an attack on a woman as a case of witch hunting. It turned out to be nothing of the kind. The police have registered a case against the reporter under section 66A of the IT Act which covers the sending of offensive messages.   

The misreporting throws a spotlight again on the contrary role that the media plays, in both tackling as well as aggravating this social malaise peculiar to Assam. In the process, it has also become a case of holding the media to account for misreporting and sensationalising.

Earlier, incidents of witch hunting used to be tucked away as small news items on the inside pages of the newspapers, mainly because people were too scared to report the incidents and because it was difficult for reporters to access the remote areas where they took place. But with mobile phones, footage is now available to television channels and these crimes are given extensive and melodramatic treatment on television news in Assam.

While the greater coverage is welcome, the nature of the reporting is often shallow, trite, and plain wrong. For example, in the story for which a reporter has been booked by the police, an assault on a 45-year-old Kiron Ray in Abhayapuri, Bongaigaon district, was portrayed as a case of witch hunting when it was a simple family dispute.  

On October 24, Ray was attacked by her younger brother and sister. Neighbours tried to quell the fighting and called the police. Ray was taken to the Abhayapuri Community Health Centre for her injuries.  

Later, residents of the area were outraged when they saw a television report on a Guwahati-based channel saying that Ray had been assaulted after being branded a witch. They demanded action against the reporter.  

According to The Assam Tribune, the police and the local administration conducted an enquiry and found that it had been a family quarrel with no one branding Ray a witch. The police registered a case against the reporter for abetment of offence, defamation, intended insult to provoke a breach of peace, and for sending offensive messages through a communication service, an offence under the IT Act.  

This was a clear case of the reporter getting the basic facts wrong. But in other stories too, the tendency of the TV news channels is to sensationalise incidents of witch hunting without going into the context and the motivations behind the branding of women as witches. 

Often, personal rivalries and attempts by relatives to grab a woman’s property are the causes of this crime. Moreover, community leaders often mobilize the mob mentality of gullible villagers when they go about branding women as witches. The genesis of such crimes lies in illiteracy, ignorance and the lack of modern medical aid in these inaccessible villages where health superstitions abound.

Senior police officer Kula Saikia says: “Any presentation of witchcraft-related issues requires caution and sensitivity so that the innocent victims are not subjected to recurrent trauma and that the perpetrators do not get undue public attention.”

In short, the public needs to be educated about this social evil. Saikia works with Project Prahari, a community policing programme set up by the Assam Police in 2000. An acronym for ‘people for progress’ in Assamese, Project Prahari was begun after a particularly gruesome incident of witch hunting.
 
Through this initiative, Saikia and other police officers are trying to inform the public about the injustice of witch hunting but their efforts are often undermined by media coverage aimed more at raising TRPs than in highlighting a serious crime.
 
A more responsible approach by the media is all the more necessary given that witch hunting is spreading in Assam. Gitarani Bhattacharya, State Programme Director of Assam Mahila Samata Society, says: “Earlier, most cases were reported from remote pockets and were prevalent only among specific communities. But now, these cases are used by vested groups for malicious intent like grabbing properties, maligning somebody etc. And the media is now reporting such cases from semi-urban and accessible villages and in communities unheard of before.” 

She would like the media to continue highlighting the issue but wants them to pay more attention to the details and circumstances of each case, to convey the complexity of the factors involved, and to do follow up stories to discover the fate of the victims and the assailants. 

As it is, The Assam Tribune estimates that 15 per cent of cases registered since 2008 have met with a dead end, with the police saying the accused could not be identified. “Very few of the perpetrators are identified because the entire community is taken into confidence,” explains women’s rights activist Monisha Behal. 

If the media have a role to play beyond sensation-mongering, the crime of witch hunting must be covered with more sensitivity and maturity. Screaming headlines and gory visuals accompanied by high pitched sound effects will not do. 

In fact, that kind of reporting serves only to make the media complicit in the crime and does a disservice both to the innocent women whose names are tarnished and to the efforts of the police and women’s groups to eradicate the crime. If the police case against the reporter acts as a trigger to make the media change their approach, well and good.        
 
(Teresa Rehman is Managing Editor, www.thethumbprintmag.com.)  
 
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