How the mainstream media has covered Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide has given rise to a plethora of critical and urgent questions which includes the need and significance of medial trials and journalistic ethics. Indian media, once known for its independence and incisive with media houses like Tehelka, which have historically played a pivotal role in cases like that of Jessica Lal where a sting operation by the same publication uncovered the truth.
But now, mainstream media has ended up telecasting dramatic shows which are almost like daily soap operas. What we now see are flashy headlines and enticing farce claims of new revelations on our TV or handset. While doing it for the TRPs and more so to deviate from the topics which would displease “Big Brother”, the media maintains that they do it just for their audience (“sirf apne darshakon ke liye“). Be it the editor-in-chief of a media house dramatically and rather disgustingly enacting a scene (“mujhe drugs chahiye”) or TV reporters hounding the food delivery boy who went to the prime accused’s house, Indian media has been stooping to new lows everyday.
Even before the investigation could take its course, actress Rhea Chakraborty, Rajput’s girlfriend and primary caregiver at the time of his death, was hounded and vilified by the media. The prime accused in the case, Rhea, was instantly made the villain of this story. Conspiracy theories accuse her of planning Rajput’s murder to gain full control of his money and available assets. These theories are being actively peddled by the media as fact, not as speculation, and have resulted in great transgressions of Chakraborty’s safety and privacy. She is subjected to a constant, daily barrage of online trolling and death threats and violent character assassinations on public platforms.
History has been a witness to cases where a trial by the media has compromised fair and concise investigations. For instance, in the Aarushi Talwar murder case, the media caricatured both the victim and the accused. There is a striking resemblance between the two cases in how the media handled them. The accused were judged based on their appearance, their facial expression and whatnot.
In cases like these, very often an attempt is made to run a sort of parallel investigation by media reporters primarily based on an intrusion in the personal sphere of the accused itself which infringes the accused’s Right to Privacy which is their fundamental right guaranteed by our constitution. This kind of seemingly instant justice action by the media generates a widespread sentiment among the public which doesn’t necessarily have to do with the truth, and that is where our concern should lie. Although it has been a subject of debate whether such public sentiment should affect the course of justice, verdicts like that of Ayodhya proves that they do.
There is also a considerable misogynist angle to this case which cannot be ignored. Because the accused is conventionally not as successful and rich, her identity is being reduced to a “gold-digger”. From day one, she has been demonised. Even her wearing a Salwar Kameez was called an attempt to whitewash her alleged crime. The allegations did not end here. She was called a vish-kanya and also a witch who did black magic on Sushant. As ridiculous as it sounds, there was a prominent media house that discussed the possibility of Rhea being a witch.
To quote Lawyer Karuna Nandy, “Rhea Chakraborty’s media trial is something that should deeply worry all women. There is a way in which [this] woman has been taken out of a particular situation and labelled a criminal by national mainstream media, in Bhojpuri songs, [and] by lawyers on national TV.“
She adds, “Rhea Chakraborty was someone who was in a relationship with Sushant Singh Rajput. Clearly, the family did not like it — another piece of evidence that has crept into the public domain. Let us be clear that there will be lots of evidence that we have absolutely no idea about and those could point to the direction of anyone’s guilt. Why is there such demonisation of this woman? This trope in our minds that family is always right and another person who might have loved Rajput a lot is wrong; there is a gender component to it. Not only is she a woman — she is a particular kind of woman.”
If we remember, the suicide case of Jiah Khan, who also was a budding actress at the time of her death did not receive attention. Neither did Sooraj Pancholi, the accused, received the wrath of the media and the public the way Rhea has received it. In the former case, Sooraj Pancholi was even accused by Jiah in her suicide letter.
In this case, there is no substantial evidence so far against Rhea. She is being targeted for living off Sushant’s money which should not be a matter of concern for anyone. Her Whatsapp screenshots and call recordings have been put in the public domain. Not only she but even her family, friends and acquaintances whose names were in the screenshots are being rampantly threatened. Every single piece of personal information is being closely scrutinised and is being spiced up. One is bound to think if the sensationalisation of this case acts in favour of some people? And the answer is — yes, it does.
The media is employing the diversion tactic here. Diversion from all crucial issues which might involve criticism of the present government. This became even more evident when a news anchor dodged the question raised by a political analyst regarding the Chinese army’s infiltration and negative GDP of the country by saying “don’t waste the nation’s and the viewers’ time”.
The unfortunate incident of Sushant’s death is being hyped and politicised rather unnecessarily in the wake of Bihar elections since he hailed from Bihar. It is being turned into propaganda and is being tried in the media so vigorously because the sad incident fulfils the vested interests of the politicians-media-industrialist nexus. It might die down very quickly once the elections are over.
Also, I would like to remind that the day after Sushant’s death, 20 of our soldiers were killed on the LAC, but the “nationalist” media did not even question the government about the same. No hue and cry and no hashtags for their justice. Another thing that the media chooses not to talk about is the deteriorating condition of our economy. Once the fastest-growing, we are facing the worst quarter slump today.
The country is also witnessing an ever-growing number of new infections with more than 65,000 active cases each day. On the other hand, Bihar is witnessing destroyed and devastated lives due to the floods. Over 83.62 lakh people are affected because of it, but does the media bother to give sufficient coverage to their plight and situation? No.
Instead, what the media is busy with is peeping into extremely personal aspects of Sushant’s life. It is making a mockery of the need for trauma-informed journalism where the accused or victim’s mental space is taken into consideration while interviewing. Sensitivity towards the accused while asking questions is needed. But the truth remains that reporters are busy having “exclusive” interviews of his cooks and bodyguard’s, keeping even their viewers’ mental health at stake who continuously get to see this as the only news on their TVs and phones.
As far as justice for Sushant is concerned, the media is speculating and at the same time assassinating his character with headlines like “Kya Sushant The Drug Addict? (Was Sushant a Drug Addict?)”, “Kya Sushant Lete The Charas? (Did Sushant Smoke Hash?) “. Well, we don’t know if Sushant used to consume opium, but what we know is that the media has served such opium as “breaking news” in Sushant’s case almost every hour of the day for its viewers.