Vicious Victimisation: Verdicts of the Virtual Jury

Debasish Mishra

Social media is a useful tool of connecting people. With the onset of 4G services and a variety of affordable smartphones, the users of social media have grown manifold in the last decade or so. Web media has seized the opportunity and tapped the resources of social media, thereby transmitting news and information on forums such as Facebook and Twitter. While this enables the common user to get in touch with the latest developments on the phone itself, there is indeed a dark side to it. The comments section of such posts leave room for the public to spill their venom. In this article, I will shed light on four major incidents that recently took place in Odisha and their reporting on social media. Thereafter, I will exhibit how some users blatantly use social media to threaten and bully the persons concerned.

The first case that grabbed eyeballs all across the state was the mysterious death of a social activist. This coincided with the death of Sushant Singh Rajput and some media channels in the state ran a parallel campaign, maligning the wife of the dead person. Second, the accidental death of an Assistant Conservator of Forests through fire was linked to his wife as well. Third, the suicide of a young model-cum-businessman was also attributed to his erstwhile girlfriend who is a singer. Lastly, an engineer of Railways accused his wife of plotting to kill him by conspiring with the driver and the media seconded him.

The media has its own importance and is rightly called the fourth estate. However, it has no powers of adjudication. In other words, the power to pass a verdict rests on the courts of the country. Nonetheless, some media channels have displayed audacity to masquerade as the judiciary and pass judgments. They were quick to allege that the deaths of the social activist, the Assistant Conservator of Forests and the model were triggered by their partners. In the case of the engineer of Railways, a section of the media tried to tarnish the character of his wife. Whether the women concerned are actually involved in the cases is another matter. In fact, the job of finding out the truth rests with the investigating agencies. Passing a verdict is solely the responsibility of the judiciary. The Constitution doesn’t empower the media to adjudicate matters. When the media pretends to be the judicature, it is no different to khap panchayats. The role of the media is to report in a fair and unbiased manner. In August 2010, subsequent to the media trial on the death of Arushi Talwar, the Supreme Court had cautioned the media to do away with irresponsible reporting which could tamper the honour of the victim. However, some lessons are yet to be learnt.

Triggered by the media, some users of social media went a step further. They foulmouthed the women, cursed them, threatened them, bullied them. For instance, one infuriated user commented on one such post, “I will slap the lady on her face if I ever see her”. Another remarked, “Why doesn’t this shameless woman die?” A user went a step ahead and labelled the woman concerned as a “prostitute”. These vulnerable women and their families have oftentimes pleaded the media to stay away from their lives. These comments may be passed as banter, but for one who faces the brunt of it, it is harassment. It is a threat. It is bullying. And virtual harassment, threatening and bullying make no less a crime than real harassment. It upsets the mental balance of a person who is already in mourning for the loss of a partner. The Constitution gives us the freedom of speech and expression. However, it doesn’t allow us to hurt the sentiments of others. It doesn’t endow us with the authority to pass judgments on our own.

Thus, the competent authorities must take note of such desperadoes, who have absolutely no respect for the rule of the law or regard for women. Strict action must be initiated against persons who threaten to injure or kill these victims. Such accounts should immediately be blocked and the persons behind those accounts should be put behind bars. A crime is a crime even when it is done on a virtual network. When the media, in its attempt to add condiments, fabricates a story, there should be immediate penalties. The channel should be banned if it endorses hate in any way. Media channels are mushrooming. In the first place, there needs to be some protocols and guidelines to ensure that the channels adhere to the basic ethical principles. There has to be a proper legislation to counter the validity of media trials. The media has every right to investigate. However, it should not pass concluding remarks. It should merely present the evidence, with specific details, and leave the ball in the court of its audience.

Debasish Mishra

Senior Research Fellow at NISER, HBNI, Bhubaneswar

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