There has been widespread condemnation of Times Now’s ‘super exclusive’ screening of CCTV footage in the Tarun Tejpal case on two primetime shows anchored by managing editor Navika Kumar and editor-in-chief Rahul Shivshankar on May 28. The programme has since been removed from the Times Now website.
Those who had the misfortune of stumbling upon the Newshour debate anchored by Kumar reported horror when the CCTV footage, dubbed as the ‘Tejpal Tapes’, was aired. The viewer was not informed that watching the footage made her complicit in an illegality. She was not told that the Goa court had prohibited the screening of the footage. The viewer was also not informed that the law prohibits the publication of rape trial proceedings conducted in-camera. Surely this undermines the very premise of a fair trial, for both the complainant and the accused?
Viewers were not informed that in-camera proceedings were introduced to ensure that the complainant’s identity is not revealed. For not only does shame and stigma accrue to women who testify against rape or sexual harassment, the circulation of their testimonies in the media also recreates trauma, apart from putting them at risk of further sexual violence.
It is truly unprecedented for a television channel to screen footage which is evidence in an ongoing trial. Instead of generating awareness about the law, the law of the screen is privileged. The image is positioned as the Truth, displacing the question of the legal and the ethical.
The viewer is seduced into thinking that the footage is “raw”, whereas the visual is edited to make it legible and entertaining. The footage was choreographed with dramatic captions, a male voiceover and background music, creating a docu-drama.
The footage was made to signify different things at the same time. On the one hand, it was captioned as the proof of Tejpal’s innocence and on the other hand, it was read as corroborating the survivor’s statement. A dramatisation of the woman’s statement followed, where a woman’s voice over describes frame by frame what happened. The importance of the footage as corroborative evidence is overplayed, while undermining the context of the trial. When such a show is arranged, do editors of such programmes even reflect on the impact of televising graphic material that describes the sexual assault on the complainant?
Did the choreographer of this show, even for one second, put herself in the place of the complainant? How would it feel to hear someone ventriloquise your testimony on national television in forensic detail without your consent and in total violation of your privacy and dignity? Would the anchor want all her viewers to know what happened to her underwear after she was assaulted? Or would she want her testimony to be repeated on national television for nearly five years frame by frame? Would she take delight in the duration of the assault, which does not always have evidentiary value, becoming household conversation?
Do rape survivors, especially in high publicity cases, have no right to privacy or dignity for the rest of their lives? Does the story of what was done to which body part in how much time have to be told again and again on national television? Is it not traumatic enough to wait for nearly five years to give evidence in a court of law? And then, just before the cross-examination, does it not work in the favour of the defence, if a studio is a medium by which a victim is intimidated, traumatised or simply feels as if she has yet again lost narrative control? Several lawyers have told us that the panel discussion and the repeated screening of the footage was illegal, defamatory and in contempt. But it also inflicts trauma, creates psychological damage and impedes testimony in ways even the legal discourse is unable to recognise and name.
Watching such a show harms those who survive sexual violence, and not just for evoking memories of violence that they may have endured or for serving as a deterrent from reporting rape, but because television studios are as scary, if not more, than trial courts. It communicates a message to all women that the more rape is talked about on tabloid television, the more the voices of survivors and what it means to survive rape will be effaced. The tabloid solidarity performed for rape survivors is fake – and the secret is that television studios which invite defence lawyers, sometimes in a standoff with complainants – and are sites which breed terror, compromise and settlement. The studio complements the court in creating a culture of compromise, where compromise is the outcome of terror and intimidation.
The panelists who participated in this show, whether or not in solidarity with the victim, included four lawyers. As Rebecca M. John has pointed, none of the lawyers pointed to the illegality of screening the footage.
Sadly, none of the panelists pointed out that screening a visual commentary on the forensic details of what happened also acts as a pedagogy, teaching men how to sexually assault women. Surely, the studio should not act as a distance-learning classroom to teach men how to rape or harass women.
Apart from this, the three male lawyers, of whom at least two are on Tejpal’s legal defence team; and the third, also known for having argued R.K. Pachauri’s defamation charge of Rs 1 crore against leading feminist lawyer Vrinda Grover and a victim in a sexual harassment at the workplace case. For white-collar male defence lawyers, it is their job to represent the story from their client’s point of view, and use the standard narrative that women habitually lie about rape in court. It is now their job to file vexatious defamation cases against women lawyers.
However, when the studio allows a battalion of defence lawyers the space of national television to attack the character and integrity of the survivor, just before the cross-examination, is this not interference in the administration of justice?
The damning statement by the lawyer that the victim demanded Rs 100 crore to settle the case further prejudices the complainant; and causes psychological and reputational harm. It is not only a question of defamation. This allegation also indicates how studios, courts and enquiry committees are often turned into spaces of intimidation.
Very often, women are forced to turn hostile. And these very cases are characterised as false cases, thus adding to the backlash narratives about the amended rape laws as being too favourable to women. Apart from the charge that the amended law is “draconian”, complainants now also have to fight against new stereotypes created by the judiciary about single and educated women as a class who we are told do not know what consent means and that their “feeble” no actually means, “yes”.
It is unfortunate that in the history of tabloid journalism, the story of Times Now can be chronicled as exemplifying what it means to sell stories of violence in the markets of suffering. Stories about sexual violence are commodities, which are trafficked in the media market for profit, routinely; however, the scandal really is that tabloid journalism profits by perpetuating rape culture in the name of challenging it. Specifically, it means that with increased tabloid publicity, the rights of survivors of sexual violence get even more diminished. The “story” about gender becomes an instrument to expand patriarchal power rather than displace its rapacious hold over women’s bodies.
Pratiksha Baxi is associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the author of Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India (2014, OUP).