Thursday, July 12, 2012
A case of not knowing enough
Posted on The Hoot
The media are guilty of blindly reporting the motivated leaks by the police about Pinki Pramanik’s sex. Reporters and editors failed to acquaint themselves with the law, says
Posted/Updated Wednesday, Jul 11 19:56:52, 2012
The medal-winning track athlete Pinki Pramanik was granted bail on July 10 after 25 tortuous days in police custody. The charge for which Pramanik was held was rape – bizarre in itself as it consisted of her live-in partner, another woman, accusing her of being a man. Yet Pramanik has been tried over this month by the media and the police for a crime she did not commit – her supposed androgyny.
Since June 14, when the athlete was arrested, until her release on bail, one saw a range of reports and editorials. Given the general lack of sensitivity in the media on many issues, much of the reporting, and the editorials in particular, were surprisingly sensitive and mature. For instance, despite the Kolkata police treating Pinki as if she were a man just because she had been accused of being one, the majority of reports continued to refer to the athlete as “her” and not the ambivalent “he/she” which would mean they accepted the questions raised about her gender.
The editorials raised questions about the absence of understanding and compassion in Indian society that fails to accommodate people who are different, who do not fit into dominant norms, as well as the gross violation of Pinki’s human rights.
Television, which usually reduces such issues to a generalised discussion that yields no information, also did surprisingly well. On Face the Nation (CNN/IBN), Sagarika Ghose raised relevant questions, such as why Pinki was arrested – and molested – by male policemen, why she was detained in the male lockup, why she was denied bail and why was she sent for gender verification tests.
Yet, every now and then the absence of knowledge on the issue – that people are often not clearly male or female – came through in the kind of headlines and copy of news stories. For instance, on July 10, the day Pinki was granted bail, the India Today website had this headline: “Pinki Pramanik’s gender test report to be submitted to Barasat Court today: athlete has male chromosomes, say sources.” The story goes on to say: “Sources indicated that the report shows Pramanik having X-Y chromosomes, which pertain to her male status”.
There are two obvious problems with this story. First, given the on-going confusion about the gender verification tests, what is the point in quoting “sources” about Pinki having “male chromosomes”.
Secondly, it is evident that neither the reporter, nor the editor that dealt with this copy, is aware that many individuals have XY chromosomes but are not necessarily male. They could have a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) where despite the chromosomal composition, their bodies do not clearly exhibit physical attributes of a male and they grow up as females. In other instances, despite XX chromosomes that would identify them as females, they appear masculine and could grow up as males. This is an inter-sex condition. Such people should not be penalised for the physiological confusion in their bodies. So, if journalists are fed information emanating from a so-called “gender verification test”, they should know that this in itself does not settle the issue.
In fact, women athletes who do exceptionally well in track events, or in events like weight lifting for instance, where their levels of endurance are considered “unnatural” for women, are often suspected either of taking performance-enhancing drugs or being “male”. There is a long history of the battles fought by women athletes, including India. In Pinki’s case, no one raised these questions during her medal-winning period. She has been in virtual retirement for the last five years. And suddenly, her sex has come into question and is being “discovered” in full view of the media by an insensitive police force.
The Pramanik issue will not disappear just yet. But there are several important lessons that the media can draw from it.
Reporters keen to get a story, especially one as sensational as this, did not bother to acquaint themselves with the law. Until proven otherwise, Pinki is a woman. Hence male police cannot arrest her. Nor should she have been kept in a male lockup. And she certainly cannot be groped in the manner Pinki was in full view of cameras and the press. Those covering this story could have questioned the police about this right at the outset. Even if one argues that it is not a reporter's job to raise these questions, surely they should have occurred to the seniors at the news desk and a follow-up story could have been done.
The media woke up to these aspects only after human rights and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) groups as well as some senior women athletes began to ask questions. In fact, even the discussion on the way the police treated Pinki only came up on television channels once these groups had drawn attention to it. Otherwise, the footage showing a policeman groping her might have gone unnoticed.
Where the media went wrong is in reporting the motivated leaks by the police about Pinki’s sex. The first so-called gender test, taken without her permission, was clearly the work of an unqualified practitioner. If reporters had been aware of the difficulties or the unreliability of such tests, it is possible they would have questioned the policemen who leaked the information, or not treated it as credible information. In any case, the media should have been wary of such a police leak and questioned why the police was doing this. Instead, as it happens with so much of such inaccurate information that emerges from the police room, the information is reported as “fact” without any qualifier. By the time it is contradicted, the damage has already been done.
Finally, I think this case provides media seniors opportunity to consider training reporters in what Laxmi Murthy terms the “emerging other” in her excellent chapter on this subject in the book “Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters” (Zubaan, 2010) which I edited. The chapter provides an essential working knowledge for journalists on issues related to sex and gender, something that all journalists need to know. After all, the reporters assigned the Pinki case were your run-of-the-mill crime reporters. They would probably assume that they need not know about AIS, or inter-sex, or the difference between transgender and transsexual. But it is this kind of basic information that has now become essential for all journalists. This is the single-most important lesson to take away from the Pinki Pramanik issue for the media.
I give below some useful articles and links that have emerged in the last month:
No way to treat a human, Economic and Political Weekly, July 14, 2012, http://www.epw.in/editorials/no-way-treat-human.html
Restore Pinki’s dignity, The Hindu, July 5, 2012, http://www.epw.in/editorials/no-way-treat-human.html
Gender Controversy: Run, Pinki run, Times of India, June 20, 2012, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-06-20/off-the-field/32334540_1_santhi-soundarajan-gender-afi/2
The right to our bodies by Gautam Bhan, Times of India, July 9, 2012, http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-06-20/off-the-field/32334540_1_santhi-soundarajan-gender-afi/2
(To read the original, click here)