Replacing ‘Victim’ with ‘Survivor’
By Priyangwada Perera
There are 25 registered newspapers in Sri Lanka which include 11 Sinhala newspapers, nine English ones and five Tamil newspapers. Some of them are state-owned while the majority is owned by private sector. However, how many newspapers - or television channels for that matter - stay true to media ethics when reporting, one might wonder. Regardless how much we talk about the importance of ethical reporting, when it comes to sales, ratings and advertising, ethics always get side-lined.
It looks as if the importance of ethical reporting should be reminded from time to time and that is the very reason why United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) came up with the informative session ‘We Are with Her’ - a very informative session with guidelines and a discussion on media sensitisation which was held recently at Movenpick Hotel, Colombo.
The session put a special focus on, ‘Reportage of Unnatural Deaths of Women and Girls in Sri Lankan Newspapers’. Sadly, while newspapers of all three languages are at fault in this regard, reportage of unnatural deaths in the Sinhala newspapers are found not conforming to ethical guidelines or accepted ethical standards of reportage. To quote UNFPA, “Almost all news items in both Sinhala and Tamil newspapers identify victims by their names and addresses, exposing them and their families.”
UNFPA based their discussion on facts, statistics and human experiences. Taking evidence in Sri Lanka, the experts said that the men who admitted to perpetrating their female partners had said they are ‘entitled’ to treat ‘their women’ the way it pleases them.
Opening remarks of the session, introducing the UNFPA Campaign, was delivered by the UNFPA Representative for Sri Lanka Ritsu Nacken. She explained how they focus on a violence-free Sri Lanka. Nacken brought up alarming details to reveal that women are not safe, even at their own homes. Nacken brought out details how ‘Women in Need’ alone received 341 telephone calls in the one month of lock down. “The scariest part of this was being locked down with one’s own perpetrator. This was not exactly the number that suffered. It was only what got reported,” she said. The key questions raised were, ‘why are women silent?’ and ‘why the media cannot support them in this?’ When it comes to these incidents being reported in the media, another issue arises. It becomes a juggle between right to information and ethics.
In terms of increasing violence, women in turn are accused of being silent and not coming out to the open. However, it is easier said than done. “Media has to support and strengthen her to have confidence in her. To have the perpetrator reported and shamed instead of women feeling ashamed, is the targeted change.”
They also discussed how this kind of violence is justified. “Financial stress of the family or being the breadwinner or the alcoholism of the partner cannot be an excuse to justify this behaviour. Instead, what we must recognise is the real issues behind this; that is power imbalance, and gender inequality,” Nacken stressed.
Sharika Cooray, National Programme and Policy Analyst on Women’s Rights and Gender, brought out a crucial topic, ‘Ethical Reporting of Violence against Women and Children’. Unlike yesteryears, the increase of insensitivity that is commonly displayed in media reports is troubling. There, Cooray highlighted how damaging the used terminology can be. “Media should report such cases to create a conducive environment. A media report should be a motivation to take action,” Cooray said. “Media should counteract myths and outdated attitudes. Not stopping there, it is their prime responsibility to frame the public opinion and a discourse in this issue. Knowing the power of the media, they can influence the community.”
In addition, Media can challenge the harmful norms and attitudes of people. One might think that it should be fairly easy to reverse such negative norms in a society that acknowledges ‘sexism is bad’ but the reality is that these are learned behaviours which are culturally defined and therefore, harder than we think to shake off completely. What we refuse to see is the difference between gender and sex. Where ‘sex’ is the biological formation of chromosomes, reproductive systems and hormones, ‘gender’ is roles and responsibilities, attributes and enlightenments. Gender-based violence is broader than it appears to be. It can be Intimate-partner violence and/or domestic violence. Most of these are caused by a current or former partner. Usually the abusive behaviour happens in a private sphere. Since violence can be physical, sexual, economic, and emotional, committed by people connected by marriage and blood, the problem is worse.
Changing social norms is crucial in achieving gender equality. Only 4 per cent of cases get reported because of the trauma and humiliation the victim almost always suffers. The session also discussed myths associated with this issue. ‘Rape only involve strangers’, is one such myth. The next is the attitude, ’it is not my problem’. They stressed that people do not consider it unless it happens to someone of their family.
Then the always-heard victim blaming; ‘because she wore a sexy dress’, ‘violence is a private issue’, and ‘rape only occurs in public spheres’, only intensify the problem.
These happen on a daily basis and COVID-19 resulted in increased Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). Behind the larger picture, this is viewed as a ‘Shadow Pandemic’. The tragedy of it is that due to the pandemic, the health sector is overburdened which means the services involving Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), contraception and so on also get pushed to the background resulting whatever happened before the pandemic, getting intensified.
It is also about how Media ‘frame’ violence. The disparity in reporting was also highlighted. How is it alright for a man to wear a pair of shorts and be safe where a woman cannot be so, doing the same? Violence happens in all communities. It is just that they are not reported the same way. They insisted that the media should not dilute the violent portion. State it is “rape”, say it is “Murder.” When reporting, get the opinion of a specialist. Do not blame a religion or a culture and avoid generalising. If that happens, the violence is pushed to the background. We must be careful not to stigmatise the abuser as insane. Often it is not a medical condition but the feeling of ‘entitlement’ that promotes such violence.
Ajith Jayasinghe, Editor of Praja.lk brought out examples of how stereotypes are used in reporting. “It is sad that the ethical boundaries of news, opinions, advertising and propaganda are blurred at present. In a culture of YouTubers, a lot has changed. Journalism is not what it used to be. Be mindful of the words you use. Replace ‘victim’ with ‘survivor’.”
“Sexual and reproductive health were topics that we discussed after 10 O’clock in the night,” Assistant Representative of UNFPA Sri Lanka, Madusha Dissanayake added the concluding remarks. “Come out with stories to empower everyone and not to victimise. Do not sensationalise news. You are not content creators or fiction writers. Instead, stimulate and provoke the audience to look at the story in a different way”, Dissanayake said.
(Pix by Anuruddha Medwattegedara)