Sensational reporting of incidents of rape and murder of foreign tourists in Goa overshadows the fact that Goa has a much better track record when it comes to giving women their social and economic due than many other states. It also gives the false impression that this is the single biggest problem the state faces, says Frederick Noronha
For a little over two years now, Goa has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. For a small state (1.4 million, 3,700 sq km) to catch the attention of a billion-strong nation, it has to be something sensational. In the past, it was governments that toppled far too often, political instability, and former chief ministers held on charges of smuggling. Today, with far less justification, Goa is in the news for being dubbed the ‘rape capital of India’. This is particularly galling for a state that has a fairly good record of treating its womenfolk.
It began in February 2008 with the Scarlett Keeling case, a heady mix of sex, drugs, a photogenic young white girl, and mystery over her death. Since then, media hype, a misunderstanding of issues, and the power of the international press have combined to put a spin on the issue that is far from the reality.
The case was tragic in itself. But it didn’t help that the media latched on to it eagerly and played it up for all it was worth. Since Keeling was a British national, the British press wrote extensively on it – it was probably the single most important story that readers back home had heard from Goa since the Commonwealth Retreat in 1983.
Suddenly, crimes against tourists -- particularly white tourists – became a major focal point for the media, though deaths of tourists in Goa are surely not a new phenomenon. The type of reporting went overboard, portraying one of the most gender-balanced states in the country as a ‘rape capital’ and worse. Stereotyping and sensationalism marked reports emanating from the state whether in outstation newspapers, news agencies or TRP-tripping television channels.
This is particularly ironic in a state where women feel far safer than in many other parts of India (though that is not to deny that there is also growing crime against women here in recent times, as elsewhere). Or for that matter, where women play an important economic role and the girl-child gets a better deal than in most parts of India.
For many years now Goa has figured as a tourist's paradise. Local journalists have written about the wild scene on parts of the coast, but publications elsewhere seemed reluctant to take it up. In the early-1990s, when the Freddy Peat child sex-abuse story emerged (a suspected foreigner, who claimed to be an Anglo-Indian, ran an ‘orphanage’ at which boys were systematically abused for sexual purposes) the national press was somewhat squeamish about giving the story too much space.
Today, the picture is very different. In a highly competitive media, sensation sells and there is no attempt to present a balanced picture or strive to put things in perspective.
The media response to the Scarlett Keeling case is an interesting case study. The story first broke in the British press and when a British journalist first phoned me, some time in mid-February 2008, for details about the rape and death of the 16-year-old Keeling, my first response was one of anger – that the local police had managed to keep the lid on the case for nearly three or four days after it happened.
The British media ran several stories on the case playing up the angle of a British tourist dead under mysterious circumstances in a third world country. The Indian media held aloof initially, until it realised that the sensational manner in which it was being reported made good business sense. Then they too jumped onto the bandwagon.
Crimes that target foreigners are not new in Goa and nor is the number of crimes disproportionate to the size of the foreigner population here. Since the early-1970s at least, local residents of places like Calangute (one of the first villages discovered by modern tourists, the ‘hippies’) have complained about the problems caused by clashing tourist-local attitudes, but this was ignored.
Interest in the Keeling case had barely subsided when the 'German girl' case surfaced. A German teenager was raped, allegedly by the son of a minister. Her mother, who was involved in a relationship with the minister’s son, accused the son of raping her 14-year-old daughter.
In Goa's highly-politicised and polarised setting, this became an opportunity to settle political scores. The father-politician in question, Atanasio Monserrate, was back to supporting the Congress, after starting out in that party and then propping up the BJP. There were many pointers to show that the case was being politically manipulated in a way that made a pawn of the victim in the chessboard of Goa’s politics. The media happily went along with this.
In search of the sensational headline, stray (and irresponsible) comments by politicians like Goa tourism minister Micky Pacheco (who declared that tourism material would no longer feature ‘bikini babes’) got translated into a ‘bikini ban’, causing outrage and needless debate globally. In the British tabloids Goa has changed from being a ‘hippie haven’ to a ‘gangster's paradise’.
Certainly all these cases were shocking. But that did not justify the way the media and lawyers leveraged the issue for their own ends. Goa, like most other parts of the country, badly needs a clean-up of public life. But when politicians are targeted through their sons, and the search for justice is mixed with the other dubious agendas of the power-hungry, the media too is on shaky ground.
Deccan Herald's special correspondent in Goa, Devika Sequeira, put it bluntly recently, when she wrote: “Some warped media coverage has dogged Goa after a few highly publicised cases of rape and deaths involving foreigners.”
Sequeira points out that Goa still remains far safer for women “despite the recent ugly convulsions in crime, the laid-back and inefficient police and the corrupt politicians”. She sees the media as being responsible for overplaying the cases of Scarlett and the German girl and more recently the rape charge by a Russian tourist against another politician who had contested a recent election. But three other suspicious deaths involving young Russian tourists have been ignored by the English media, she points out. The parents of two of the victims could not even afford to travel from Russia to Goa to pursue the cases. The combination of their nationality and economic status may have made these victims less attractive to the international media.
Without absolving Goa of its “abysmal level of policing”, she cited figures to make a case that Goa (or India) is not an exception. In fact, British tourists face crime while on holiday in a number of other destinations in the world. From the reporting, one gets the feeling that somehow Goa is deadlier.
The British media that came to cover the Scarlett case in February 2008, ‘discovered’ drugs and the coastal mafia and wrote about these.
The problem of drug-taking is not new and every winter a significant number of drug-related deaths of foreign tourists are reported. When working on a story some years ago with a colleague, Ashley do Rosario, we found that more than 40 foreigners had died in the peak tourist season (roughly November to February) of a single year in Goa. So, when does news become 'news'? And what does it take for a serious issue to get media attention?
For the average resident of Goa, this is like putting salt on a wound. Suddenly, this small state is being perceived as one dangerous hellhole. At the same time, nobody talks about villagers crying themselves hoarse about the mafia that have held sway in their areas for decades now.
It is ironic that the rest of India often complains that the dominant media of the Western world fails to understand it, but at the same time India too fails to understand Goa.
Let's not pretend that the clash of civilisations happening along parts of coastal Goa is something new. Let's not pretend that the crime that tourists face -- however shocking and sad -- is the biggest problem the Goa of today is facing. It may just be a nice stereotype through which to report Goa.
Infochange News & Features, April 2010