By Prajwala Hegde for Youth Ki Awaaz:
In September of 2016, 21-year-old transgender woman Riyana had to face the horror of society’s transphobic attitude when she found herself featured in a programme called ‘Operation Anandi’, aired by regional news channel TV9 Karnataka.
‘Operation Anandi’ (Anandi is the name of one of the accused) was a sting carried out by TV9 based on a complaint from a mother that her son, portrayed as a minor, was kidnapped and forcefully castrated by Anandi and her group.
The channel claimed that members of the transgender community had also forced Riyana into a sex-change operation and, hence, it was appropriate to feature her.
TV9, owned by Associated Broadcasting Co. Pvt. Ltd, telecast Riyana’s photos and named her without her consent even though Riyana was in no way related to the case in question. It also telecast an interview with her parents with their faces partly covered. They had expressed their disapproval during the initial days of her gender change. However, they have woken up to the reality now. Riyana claims that her parents were compelled to talk without being informed about the objective and content of the programme.
In 2009, TV9 did a major expose on the Devdasi tradition among sex workers in Bellary district. A fact-finding team comprising of women’s organisations had noted that, as a story’s fallout, these sex workers who were previously accepted by a wide community, were now ostracised. Also, during the programme, the channel was accused of not blurring the images of those women in question.
After the ‘Operation Anandi’ programme was aired, Riyana – who is studying cosmetology, beauty, and wellness in a private college in Bengaluru – said she was so traumatised she could not to go to college for a few days. She also alleged she was pushed out of the TV9 office when she went there to lodge a complaint.
A day after the show was telecast, six transgender women were arrested and placed in judicial custody, after being charged with abduction, wrongful confinement and attempt to murder. One of them was put in a cell with men. The accused have been denied bail and remain behind bars to date.
Human rights activists have alleged that the channel not only aired the offending programme but also conducted a media trial portraying the transgender community in a derogatory and insensitive manner.
They said TV9 flouted News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) guidelines which state that a news channel must be impartial and objective when reporting, should be neutral, safeguard privacy and be responsible when carrying out sting operations.
Deeptha Rao, advocate and researcher with the Alternative Law Forum — a human rights lawyers collective — who is working on a fact-finding team on ‘Operation Anandi’ said TV9 ran multiple shows following ‘Operation Anandi’, whipping up public frenzy.
“The programme was not only blatantly prejudiced but threatened an individual’s personal liberty and right to privacy. This is not the first time the media house has categorically targeted a particular community and it was well-orchestrated,” said Rao to Youth Ki Awaaz.
She said the existing media complaint mechanism was inaccessible and that it was impossible to lodge a complaint against the channel.
According to the set process, the complainant has to file a formal complaint with the news channel within 7 days of the airing of the programme. Upon receiving a response, the complainant has to appeal to the NBSA (within 14 days of the airing of the programme), which is the appellate authority.
“By the time the community got together to figure out the remedies and course of action, it had already missed the deadline,” said Rao.
Rao alleged that the complainant, on whose basis the show was telecast, was kept in the custody of the channel and couldn’t be reached at any time, unless in the presence of the news channel’s representatives.
TV9 Karnataka did not respond to queries sent regarding the programme and its alleged violations.
“Our community members faced a lot of problems after the programme was aired. The impact was worse in rural areas. We found it difficult to even walk in public or enter a temple. Everybody started treating us like child abductors,” said transgender activist and co-founder of NGO Payana A. Sowmya.
“The police entered the households of many transgender people and questioned them day and night, invading their privacy and threatening their safety. They specifically looked for those under 18 years of age and asked them if they were forced to become a transgender.”
That said, the police slowed down after the transgender community took the matter to the Bengaluru city police commissioner.
Several members of the transgender community narrated ordeals of how the “biased and sensational” portrayal in media has adversely affected them. The spoke of increased police action and of being ostracised by neighbours and the general public.
“Consequent to the telecast of the programme, many of our families who had accepted our transgender identity are harassing us. Landowners are forcing us to vacate our offices and homes,” Karnataka Transgender Samithi, a union of the transgender, told the media.
Vinay Sreenivasa of ALF said that although sting operations were not uncommon, using a “spy camera in a case like this violated the right to privacy, code of ethics and broadcasting standards.”
He recalled how the NBSA had passed an order after complaints were received against TV9 following the telecast of a programme titled “Gay Culture Rampant in Hyderabad” in February 2011.
“Invading the privacy of an already marginalised community does not serve any purpose. What is the point of repeatedly telecasting (sic) a program about people who have already been proved innocent? And how does it serve public interest?” he said.
In April 2014, the Supreme Court of India, in a case against NALSA vs Union of India, delivered a landmark judgement, affirming the fundamental rights of transgender persons.
The court gave a series of directives to the government to formulate institute welfare measures for transgender persons, grant legal recognition of their gender identity and take specific steps to address the discrimination faced by them.
Even though it is almost three years since the order was passed, nothing much has happened on ground. The draft Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) bill, framed to provide for protection of rights of transgender persons and their welfare, is yet to be passed in the upper house.
“The bill itself is on shaky ground, it is still not an Act and hence not effective. Right now, we have the NALSA (a.) decision, but there is no reference to the media and its portrayal. It broadly reiterates the rights of the transgender people. We need to petition the court and assess how the NALSA has been implemented,” said Deeptha.
Referring to the Hyderabad TV9 case, she said the news channel was not really held accountable other than to pay a meagre fine and tender an “unconditional apology”.
“In terms of legal recourse,” she said, “we weren’t able to take any action since TV9 served a caveat and it was granted. That and the fact that they have excellent legal counsel at disposal.”
Speaking to Youth Ki Awaaz on ‘Operation Anandi’ and if direct cognizance of the violation was noted by the government, Project Director of Child Protection, Department of Women and Child Development, Narmada Anand, answered in the negative.
“The child is currently under the care of the mother and we will pay for medical assistance if asked. Meanwhile, the State Government is ready with a draft policy to protect the rights of transgender people,” Anand said. “We are preparing a policy and have sent suggestions to the WDC (Women Development Corporation).”
Former state public prosecutor and human rights lawyer BT Venkatesh said that crime is attributed to the hijras and they’re not given any benefit of doubt.
“Crime is a staple food (for media), and the more stigma surrounding a topic, the more sensational it becomes. Selective outrage and not having a fair approach is the news channel’s way of ensuring quick TRPs,” he said. “In case of a Hijra, who is already stigmatised, the narrative becomes singular. We have no national regulatory authority which makes these media houses accountable and until then they will continue to get away with it.”
The fight against the historical wrongs and transphobic attitude of the society is a tough one. The media has to be logical and fair in recognising their rights while reporting them.
About the author: Prajwala Hegde is a Bangalore-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.