Last month, the tragedy of an 18 year old’s gang-rape in Muzaffargarh gained limelight. The victim had registered her case but it did not make any difference. Eventually she set herself on fire in front of a police station. Her story was then picked up by the media. She unfortunately died soon after.

This is a compelling and newsworthy story which outlines the unfair treatment of rape victims in Pakistan. However, it demanded careful coverage.

The WHO reports suicide to be one of the leading causes of death amongst teenagers aged 15 to 19, more prevalent among girls. Suicidal behavior can be imitated, especially when a high-profile suicide is sensationalized because it legitimizes the behavior as acceptable to those who are already predisposed to it. This is called the Werther Effect (also called copycat suicide) and has been verified in studies.

The phenomenon was first noted when Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was published in 1774. The young protagonist of the novel wore yellow pants and a blue jacket, which became trendy. But Werther committed suicide after being rejected in love and some men replicated this too.

Two centuries later, David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego discovered that suicide rates spiked up after a well-publicized suicide. Phillips identified that the news made some people more susceptible to committing suicide as they feel they now have the permission to do so. Sometimes the same method or location was used.

The gang rape victim’s suicide reportage violated many WHO guidelines. Urdu papers posted the news near the headline, printed the victim’s personal details with graphic photos and other particulars in the headline. WHO guidelines caution journalists on promoting suicides, giving explicit details of the method/location and attributing motives. Ideally the word “suicide” shouldn’t appear in the headline and a helpline number should be prominently displayed.

A leading Pakistani newspaper presented this suicide as a murder “first by the men who so brutally raped her and then by the authorities that treated her case so casually.” An example should not be made out of a victim who managed to end her life after an emotional breakdown. But rather someone like Mukhtaran Mai, who is also from Muzaffargarh and resurrected her life despite the odds.

The victim indeed went through unimaginable pain. However, in a country with millions of backlogged cases still pending (1.6 million in 2012 alone), low conviction rates for most crimes and inclusion of DNA tests as evidence in rape cases still debatable – legitimizing a suicide by tying it with lofty statements like “ fighting the system” or “murdered by society” is perilous.

After a few days, politician Azam Khan Hoti’s wife tried to commit suicide, by setting herself ablaze to protest against her divorce settlement. This could have been a copycat suicide and should have been even more carefully described.

In 2010, a rickshaw driver committed suicide after murdering his family in Lahore. Those were the days of the PPP government, when corruption and poor governance were rife. The media quickly made demonstrative packages to illustrate the injustice. Twisting a suicide into a political melodrama is a dangerous maneuver. Suicides influenced by such ghastly coverage might never even be reported.

HRCP cited the National Poison Control Centre in 2011 and said that more than eleven hundred suicides were attempted across Pakistan. It added that five or six teenagers attempt suicide in Karachi every day, 60 percent of these are teenage girls (just like the Muzzafargarh victim) whose families seldom report it. Teen suicide is rising in Pakistan, said the same report, another reason for careful reporting.

News reports should highlight that suicides are a complex decision, influenced by factors like genetics, personality, mental illnesses (especially depression) etc. The media should neither simplify it like “student kills himself after failing exams”, nor construe motives when not immediately clear.

The coverage becomes trickier when a celebrity is involved. Last year, a Bollywood starlet Jiah Khan reportedly committed suicide. Her career and love life were both unstable. The media depicted her as a lovelorn Juliet mistreated by her erratic lover, who killed herself because she couldn’t stand life without him.

However accurate this portrayal might be, it was a huge reporting blunder. A study published in the medical journal Lancet stated that India has the second highest suicide rate amongst youngsters aged 15 and 26 per 100,000 people. In a country where a teen suicide is an emergent problem, depicting a celebrity suicide as martyrdom seems criminal.

Recently, Mick Jagger lost his partner, the fashion designer L’Wren Scott to suicide. The Daily Mirror and the Daily Star in the UK posted pictures of Jagger soon after the moment he heard of his “lover’s suicide” and how she had “hanged herself.” This was an invasion of his privacy and a violation of WHO guidelines. If this wasn’t sensational and explicit enough, the Telegraph deduced that this suicide elucidates “the darker lining to catwalk glamour” and the New York Post labeled it as the “tragic side of the city’s glitzy scene.”

Suicide victims might leave their loved ones feeling guilty, livid, abandoned and stigmatized. Many studies indicate that the family members themselves are at a heightened risk of suicide and lurid reporting can worsen the vulnerability. 

Every suicide is preventable and no suicide is acceptable. Whether it is a Buddhist monk seeking freedom from China, an Indian farmer battling poverty or an Afghan fighting foreign occupation, suicide is the worst option. And the media must always spell this out clearly.

Note: You can contact a Suicide Prevention Helpline: 92- 42-35761999

n    The writer is an Assistant Web Editor for The Nation.