When a headless body stuffed inside a travelling bag was discovered on Dam Street in Colombo at the end of February, it did not seem to shock most of society.
There was concern no doubt, and the usual curiosity about the identity of the woman; how was her body stuffed inside a medium sized travelling bag, where was the head, who was she and how had she met with her death? Was there a serial killer out and about?
CCTV footage showed the bag being brought to the location by a man. Who was he, and how was there no blood seeping out of the bag? Had the body been drained of the blood before being stuffed into the bag?
But was there shock and public outcry against such a dastardly act?
Instead, the discovery of the body served to titillate society’s fancy.
Within hours of the young woman’s identity becoming known a series of photos, perhaps obtained from her Facebook account, were circulated both via mainstream and social media. In the rush to circulate her photos, to be the ‘first’ to get them out, no one gave a thought to her family and the grief they were going through. No one, it seems cared about being respectful of the dead.
There was even a photo of her dead body, laid out at the police morgue doing the rounds on social media.
The killer turned out to be a Sub Inspector of Police. His photos too were passed around, including that of his dead body.
What’s more, with complete disregard for privacy, some media published a purported letter written by the SI to his wife, just before he had taken his life. If the media came by the letter, then it would have been released through the police.
Not content with all of that, there were the jokes and memes too:
"If your woman is too noisy or troublesome, just take home a travelling bag.”
One video showed a girl running out of her house, telling a neighbour that her husband had brought home a travelling bag.
And not surprisingly, all conversations attempted to paint the young woman as in the wrong black. Never mind that her killer was a 52 year old married man with children. If anyone was the villain of the story, society and the media determined that it had to be the dead woman - what was she doing having a dalliance, they asked, with a man more than 20 years her senior, and a married man with children at that!
She was a loose woman, they said.
She was badgering the Sub Inspector to marry her, they said.
One report even claimed that the SI had told his young son that he would seek help of the supernatural, as the woman was proving to be a nuisance. (No censure there of course, though the SI had no compunction discussing his extra-marital relationships with his son). The story was reported in an attempt to prove what a pain the young woman had become to the killer.
What a sad commentary on both Sri Lankan society and the media.
Neither society nor the media cared a jot about the dead woman’s family. They cared not a jot for the wife and children of the SI; they, who now have to brave the world and carry on with their lives.
Society and the media gleefully broke every rule in the book of ethics.
Speaking at an event to mark International Womens’ day on March 8th, former parliamentarian Hirunika Premachandra asked whether Sri Lankans had come to normalise such horrific behaviour.
It seems it has.
Premachandra called for political leaders to take things in hand and introduce rules and standards that would ensure ethical reporting, and programmes that would not normalise such disturbing behaviour.
But there is the Code of Professional Conduct developed by the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka. A Code that has been in ‘force’ for more than two decades, one that is used to train journalists on the standards they must uphold when practicing their profession.
The Board of Governors of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka is made up of members of the Editors Guild, media owners and media activists. Yet, more often than not, it is the very same media outlets these members represent that pay lip service to the Code.
And as for the Broadcasters Guild of Sri Lanka, which came into being just a few years ago, the less said the better!
The code devised by the Editors Guild has several salient points that media professionals, both print and electronic consistently ignore. Here are some that are particularly applicable to the issue at hand:
06. GENERAL REPORTING and WRITING 6.1: In dealing with social issues of a particularly shocking or emotionally painful nature – such as atrocity, violence, drug abuse, brutality, sadism, sexual salacity and obscenity – the press should take special care to present facts, opinions, photographs and graphics with due sensitivity and discretion, subject to its duty to publish in the public interest. 6.2: In reporting accounts of crime or criminal case, publications shall not, unless it is both legally permitted and in the public interest – i. Name victims of sex crimes. ii. Knowingly name any young person accused of a criminal offence who is below the age of 16 and who has no previous convictions. iii. Identify without consent relatives of a person accused or convicted of a crime.
6.5: When reporting suicide, care should be taken not to give excessive detail of the method used.
07. PRIVACY 7.1: The press shall exercise particular care to respect the private and family lives of individuals, their home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. Intrusions on this right to privacy without consent could be justified only by some overriding public interest.
That media ignores such provisions, and that society fails to hold them accountable to the standards of their profession, is, indeed a sad commentary on this country, one that boasts of a culture that is more than two thousand five hundred years old.