Hysterical media trials have increasingly been about earning TRPs rather than exacting the truth. In the guise of promoting gender justice the media can cause immeasurable damage, especially to the actual victims of sexual harassment. 

In any civilized society, a person is deemed to be innocent until proven guilty. That is a fundamental principle of justice. This rule largely applies in India too, except when it comes to trials run by the media. This travesty is increasingly perpetrated in the guise of promoting women’s empowerment and gender justice.

This is how it works: A media house chooses a case where a woman is supposedly victimized, takes the woman’s side, pronounces judgement based on sketchy facts and whips up hysteria. This effectively results in a witch-hunt, where noise and passions quickly overrule reason and facts.

In many of these cases, the real story turns out be different from what was originally portrayed. But the damage is done and lives are destroyed. However, the media houses do not care since it is a win-win situation for them. While the sensationalism lasts, they earn TRPs and once the dust settles, there is no punitive action for the havoc caused. In their scheme of things, a few shattered lives are merely collateral damage.

Let me illustrate my point with a few recent cases where media has colluded with women to misuse gender. Readers may recall the Rohtak case, where two sisters hogged the limelight after a video of them thrashing their alleged molesters went viral. They became overnight celebrities and were feted as “brave hearts”.Then discrepancies started emerging in the story. Many eyewitnesses came forward to contradict the girl’s version and claimed that the boys were innocent. Another video emerged where the sisters thrashed a boy in a park in a similar manner.

Murmurs started that perhaps the girls had set up the whole situation for publicity. In response, the media’s glorification of the girls intensified and people who raised questions were shouted down as misogynistic.
Eventually, the Haryana courts set up a Special Investigation Team to look into the matter. During the investigation, the two girls apparently failed a polygraph and psychological assessment test (PAT) while the boys cleared theirs. The trial is still on.

Given the sequence of events, it seems possible that the whole episode was an easy ticket to fame for the two girls. That fame resulted in national shaming of the accused men and their families. It cost two men potential army jobs.

Here, the moot question is that if the boys are found innocent at the conclusion of the trail, who will fight for them? Who will compensate for their trauma and loss of employment? Who will reinstate their honour?

Let me cite another case. A few months ago a policeman was filmed hitting a young mother with a brick. The event had all the emotional ingredients to become a media blockbuster. There was an outrage, which resulted in the policeman’s dismissal and arrest. However, it later emerged that the woman had skipped a red light and hit the policeman with a stone first when he tried to fine her.

In this case, two people were in the wrong. The policeman had no mandate to attack a woman, irrespective of provocation. The woman broke a traffic rule, assaulted a uniformed officer, alleged bribery and then played victim.
Under these circumstances, why did the media only vilify the policeman? Why was the woman given a free pass when she was the instigator of violence? Are we to believe that rules in the country are gender specific and apply only to men?

Then there was the case of Misbah Qadri, a journalist who claimed that she was evicted from her building because she was a Muslim woman. Religion and gender is a potent combination and media dutifully whipped up victimhood hysteria. It later emerged that the eviction was due to lack of proper documentation. The religious angle was false as the building had many other Muslim residents. Yet, without any research into the matter, the media used gender and religion to shamelessly exploit fault lines.

More recently, a woman named Jasleen Kaur posted a photograph of a man on Facebook and claimed that he made lewd comments and threatened her. The media magnified the story into a gender crusade. The man was arrested but is now out on bail.

What really happened is still unclear, but the media pronounced their verdict even before the facts were out. The father of the accused was arbitrarily labelled as the “pervert’s father”. Referring to the accused, a news channel’s headline read: “Out on bail, lout Sarabjeet unrepentant, refuses to apologise”. The interview that followed the headline was even more disgraceful. The shrill journalist who questioned the accused virtually badgered him for an apology on national television, while dismissing his version contemptuously.

Yet again it emerged that there were two sides to the story. An eyewitness, who saw the news on television, came forward to contradict the accuser. He claimed that it was a case of verbal altercation and it was the woman who had abused, not vice versa. She later projected it as a case of sexual harassment.

This particular case is noteworthy for two reasons. First, due to media’s repeated vigilantism, people are now wary of taking any harassment case at face value. This is a very worrying development.

Second, emboldened by media’s irresponsibility, a woman can now take a photo of any man and settle scores by claiming sexual harassment. Can you even imagine where this trend can lead?

The abovementioned cases have bothered me immensely. As a woman who has grown up in Delhi, sexual harassment has been an ugly reality of my growing years. There is not a part of my body that has not been groped, pinched or touched by perverted strangers in public spaces. I continue to carry intense anger about sexual violation. However, I refuse to direct the anger to all males indiscriminately. That approach is unjust and is bound to create a backlash.

Moreover, playing the gender card to cry wolf undermines genuine cases. The battle for the actual victims of rape, molestation and other forms of disempowerment is a real and difficult one, even under normal circumstances. Highlighting flimsy cases for TRP and turning gender issues into a media circus causes immeasurable damage.

We need to bear in mind that punishing the innocent cannot rectify historic wrongs. Reverse gender violence and discrimination cannot be the blueprint for gender-equality. Hysterical media trials cannot deliver justice to any gender.

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