By Uma Sudhir
Most people would think being a journalist is a privilege. I do too, but not always. There are times when you wish you didn’t have to do what you are doing. Or wish you could at least dissociate from being clubbed with that all-encompassing label of belonging to the media. That’s what my longtime associate (as husband and colleague) Sudhir was telling me after he got back from Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Stadium last Wednesday.
We were presumably among the first to hear that morning that a young girl, not even 21, had died under suspicious circumstances inside her hostel room at the stadium. She had been a junior national boxing champion, bagged a silver medal at the Southern India Women Boxing Championship in 2004 and won a bronze at the Senior National Boxing Championship in 2006. That’s what had brought her three years ago to the Centre of Excellence being run by the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh to nurture the best talent in the state.
Amaravathi’s last supper had reportedly been biryani laced with poison. She was in shorts and a t-shirt and had apparently died, crouching in pain. Her hand outstretched, hanging by the bedside. Rigor mortis had set in, so she made a crooked, awkward sight even after she had been turned to lie face-up on the bed.
The cameras would not allow her dignity even in death. Even before she could be covered with a white cloth, the lensmen were in a hurry. They had to get the `first’ shots and put it out on air before anyone else. The more raw, the more shocking, the better the visuals. The minister concerned was quite willing to pose around the room, so all the channels could get adequate footage and no one would be left complaining.
Those who had managed the `first’ shots were directing those who arrived later in loud tones. `Body upar hai, jaldi se shot le lo, nahin to cover kar denge aur mortuary le jayenge’. This within earshot of family members. I don’t know if it has to do with the frequency of being faced with situations that makes us in the media sound so insensitive, or should I say terrible. This is not to point fingers but more for us to introspect as a clan.
The widowed mother, twin sister and brothers had come from Chintalbasti, a far from well-to-do area of the city. They were speaking to one channel after another. I don’t know what must have been going through their mind. May be they were just overwhelmed by the turn of events. That’s why they were mourning their personal loss in full public glare, before all the cameras. Did they realise all that they did and said was going to be beamed into homes across the country? May be they thought they would get some answers, may be they would get some help. Did they even have a choice?
We in the media do know that if the next `bigger” newsbreak happens, the news will move on, the cameras will disappear and there would be no one to even listen to the family, their story, their tears.
The police said it was time to send the body for a post-mortem but the family members were missing. They had all been taken away or should I say `hijacked’ by different TV channels to be studio guests for live discussion on the tragedy and its ramifications and the questions it raises. This even as Amaravathi lay on the bed as lonely as she was in her last moments.
Most channels would argue that the death of the girl gave the media an opportunity to look at the stress to perform and to outperform others. Was it the inability to cope with setbacks or failure, the psychological pressures faced by a lonely girl, or was it a systemic failure to ensure there is an effective, functioning grievance redressal mechanism? What about the role of a coach, how far can she or he push when the criticism is always that the country has failed to produce medal winners? Valid. But does it have to be at the cost of compromising the dignity of a girl who has died a pathetic death?
It was only after several phone calls to different channels to `release’ the studio guests from the `live’ discussions and only after the minister had announced that five lakh rupees compensation would be paid to the family, that legally mandatory signatures and approvals from the family were got for sending the body for a post-mortem examination.
The point is not just about this case. What drove the girl to death, was she so driven to desperation and hopelessness that she poisoned herself to death? Those answers the police and the inquiry committee will hopefully give.
What is worrying is that after virtually every such human tragedy, the line of what is personal and what can be in the public domain is breached. More so if the `subject’ is from a less privileged section of society. Many call us vultures waiting for sensationalism, disaster. Carnivores waiting for prey, with our mikes and cameras, ready to pounce on unsuspecting and not-so-unsuspecting victims. At every seminar where media is the point of discussion, it evokes passionate discussion, not always of admiration. And it is not easy to defend ourselves.
There is no one to draw the lines. We, the `independent and free’ media, don’t want anyone to draw the `laxman rekha’ for us but we are apparently not willing to draw it ourselves either. The loss will not be just of those whose dignity is violated, but of a media that will, as an institution, lose its credibility and respect in the public arena. The sooner we hold a mirror to ourselves, the better.
Amaravathi was a headline for a day. The death of media ethics doesn’t ever make it to the headlines. Because what the media does not acknowledge, does not exist. Or so we like to think. It’s like the cat who closes its eyes while drinking the milk, so no one will see. How long will we refuse to see?