Sushant Singh Rajput death: ‘Suicide is not a crime, frame guidelines for its reporting by media’, PIL in Bombay High Court  

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Mubarak Ansari

Pune, July 3, 2020: Pune-based human rights activist and lawyer Asim Sarode has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court in the matter of ‘insensitively publishing news regarding the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput by various media’. He has also demanded implementation of guidelines established and set up as well as adopted by the Press Council of India in consultation with the World Health Organisation(WHO).

This has been filed against News Broadcasting Association (NBA), New Delhi and Press Council of India, New Delhi. They are the self-regulatory bodies for electronic and print media respectively.

The PIL states, “Actor Sushant Singh’s tragic death on 14th June 2020 was definitely shocking for everyone. All the TV channels started showing the news of his suicide. The way of narrating news and showing various graphics was horrible. The news was presented by various TV Channels with an aim to get a total rating point (TRP). The TV news coverage and photographs of Sushant’s body on social media created outrage among people.”

Adv Sarode said, “Celebrity is a known face and their suicide can provoke imitational suicidal behaviour. Therefore the reporting should be sensitive and responsible. While the Indian Penal Code (IPC) has looked at committing suicide as a crime, the Mental Health Act, 2017 has looked at suicide as a mental illness, and such people should get access to assistance. It is pertinent that a clear interpretation be done on how suicidal tendencies can be stopped with treatment and assistance.”

He further said, “The Press Council of India itself adopted the guidelines in pursuance of WHO report, that newspapers and news agencies while reporting the cases of suicide must not use photographs, video footage or social media links. But the news regarding the suicidal death of Sushant Singh Rajput, failed to observe these guidelines.”

According to the PIL, actor Sushant Singh’s demise has laid bare India’s indifferent attitude towards mental health. WHO data which claims that close to 70 percent of people suffering from mental health problems in India don’t get treatment. The fact remains that afflictions like anxiety and depression are still considered to be one you can get over just like that. The police revealed that Sushant Singh Rajput was troubled because of mental health problems.

More than 50 international studies have found that certain types of media coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide for some individuals. Headlines, language, images and even the decision to report on suicide can all have an impact on individuals and the general public.

The news of Singh’s death shocked the industry and fans. His passing away has not only opened the gates of conversation around mental health, anxiety and depression, something that is still considered a stigma in our society, but also how media should cover suicide more sensitively.

 And then started the debate on what is the correct way to report an incident of suicide. Experts on mental health warned many times that one should never use the word ‘commit’. “You don’t ‘commit a heart attack’. Instead, you might hear someone say they ‘died from a heart attack.’ Dying by suicide is the same. When attaching the word ‘committed’, it further discriminates against those who lost their battle against a disease. Suicide is considered to be a mental illness under the Mental Health Act, 2017.

Perhaps more than anyone, media professionals recognise the importance of language in conveying nuanced meanings. The language which conveys that suicide is a significant public health problem will serve to educate the community. Such language should not sensationalise suicide. Media guidelines laid down by WHO and International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) on how news organisations should report on suicides stated are very important to be followed by everyone.

It is high time to understand that no one chooses to be depressed or stay depressed. Their brain doesn’t allow them to come out of it. That after getting proper support, such people can regain their capacities to live life in a meaningful way. But because of the stigma around mental health, people shy away from consulting psychiatrists for assistance. And hence, the role of the media is portraying incidents involving a mental health issue becomes crucial.

WHO has issued various guidelines on reporting of suicide cases and presentation of reports, which are adopted by the Press Council of India. It is unfortunate that no such guidelines have been followed by the media in India.

Some reporters reached the house of Sushant Singh Rajput’s father, trying to speak to him, while he was still under shock. They gathered around his house thereby infringing their right to privacy. Such acts by the media are highly condemnable, insensitive and thoughtless.

The Press Council has adopted the guidelines in pursuance of the World Health Organisation report on Preventing Suicide: According to the guidelines, the following is to be avoided:

1. Publish stories about suicide prominently and unduly repeat such stories.

2. Use language which sensationalises or normalises suicide, or presents it as a constructive solution to problems.

3. Explicitly describe the method used.

4. Provide details about the site/location.

5. Use sensational headlines.

6. Use photographs, video footage or social media links.

But mo media house bothered to follow the guidelines and many news channels put out sensational headlines such as:

 (Zee News put out a tweet with the caption), “फिल्म का ‘धोनी’ असल ज़िंदगी में ‘आउट’ कैसे?” (How did the Dhoni of cinemas get ‘OUT’ in real life?)

“How did Sushant get a “hit wicket”?” (This was called out by many Twitter users, with the hashtag #ShameOnAajTak trending on the microblogging platform.)”

PRAYERS:  The PIL has prayed the High Court to issue a writ of mandamus or writ in the nature of mandamus or any other appropriate writ directing the respondents (Press Council of India and NBA):

  1. To file an affidavit before the Court mentioning that they will inform all their members to abide by the guidelines issued by the Press Council of India and WHO.

  2. To submit on the affidavit, the standard operating process (SOP) of functioning by the respondents while reporting and publishing news report related to death due to suicide by any celebrity or anyone.

  3. To mention on the affidavit that they will inform to its members to print/ broadcast information on mental health awareness and suicide prevention every quarter.

  4. To run information scroll on TV channels during the examination and results time about assistance available if one feels suicidal so that people are aware as we have seen high suicide rates during exam and result time.

  5. The court must interpret suicide as a mental illness and clarify it is not a crime.