Opinion

Reporting rape: Does the Indian media deserve court strictures for naming the Kathua victim?

Does the media see privacy as less of a problem when it is writing about Dalit and working-class victims?

Does a heart-wrenching photograph of a child help elevate the response of a nation to her murder and alleged rape, even as publicising it breaks the law?

In 2012, the Delhi gangrape victim’s photograph was not circulated and therefore did not become imprinted in public memory. But today, an unforgettable photograph of the eight-year-old Kathua victim – in which she gazes straight at the camera while dressed in a bright purple salwar kameez – has been widely used in the press, which has also revealed her name.

On April 13, news agency PTI reported that the Delhi High Court had issued notices to several media houses for revealing the Kathua victim’s identity. The report said that a bench comprising acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar, “took up the issue on its own after coming across print and electronic media reports”, and sought a response from them, asking why action should not be taken against them on the matter.

A basic Google search shows that the list of newspapers, TV channels and websites that had revealed the identity of the Kathua victim is wide ranging. It starts with the Kashmir dailies, Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir, which have published news related to the crime prominently since January, when the rape and murder took place, along with the girl’s photograph. It goes on to include the Times of India, where the child’s name also figured in a headline; NDTV, which used her photograph, and later masked it; the website
ScoopWhoop, which carried a photograph of a poster with the girl’s name and face; the website Newslaundry; the Indian Express, which had identified the girl (it removed the references later though they can still be found via a Google search); the National Herald newspaper; and the academic journal, Economic and Political Weekly.

What the law says

Was this unforgivable behaviour? Only by a strictly legalistic interpretation of the law (Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code), which says that in the case of a deceased victim or a minor the name can be revealed, but prescribes the procedure:

“[W]ith the authorisation in writing of, the next of kin of the victim: Provided that no such authorisation shall be given by the next of kin to anybody other than the chairman or the secretary, by whatever name called, of any recognised welfare institution or organisation.”

The father of the Kathua rape victim had given out her photograph to members of the press, and newspapers in Kashmir were the first to publish it. In the case of the Delhi woman who was brutally raped in December 2012 and died later of her injuries in a Singapore hospital, both parents were clear that they wanted the world to know their daughter’s name because she had done nothing wrong. Her mother even revealed her name in an NDTV programme. But the media did not deviate from calling her Nirbhaya, the pseudonym bestowed on her by the Times of India.

The contrast between the way the Indian media has reported the rape of the eight-year-old in Kathua and the minor girl in Unnao is this: while the Unnao victim’s name has not been publicised, there is TV footage of her in which only half her face is flimsily veiled. Footage of the Unnao victim has featured on ABP News channel, as well as on a page on the New Indian Express website. This is perhaps because her immolation bid outside Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s house in Lucknow on April 8 was captured by TV cameras.

Not just journalists?

Given the rising graph of cases of rape from all over the country, how the Indian media reports such cases merits constant scrutiny.

Irresponsible reporting acquires many dimensions. But it is not just about the media either. In mid-2016, the Delhi Police registered a case against Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal for allegedly revealing the identity of a 14-year-old Dalit rape victim in a notice she sent to the police station chief of the area the victim was from. Last April, a Delhi court rapped the city police for revealing the identities of victims of sexual violence in a chargesheet it had filed.

A 2016 article on news website The Wire documented the ways in which the criminal justice system itself breaks the law regarding the identities of rape victims.

The role of class

The class of the victim affects coverage too. A 2006 article in The Hoot on how the English press covered the brutal sexual assault of a Dalit woman and her daughter in Khairlanji, Maharashtra, notes how the English press practically ignored the crime. “The mother-daughter’s face and name – Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange – should have become as much part of our consciousness as Jessica Lal’s and Priyadarshini Mattoo’s,” the author wrote. But they did not. (Both the Mattoo and Lal incidents happened in the national capital. While Mattoo, a law student, was raped and killed, Lal was shot dead at a restaurant for refusing to serve her killer a drink. Both the cases got widespread media coverage.) Similarly, look at the initial media coverage of the Kathua crime. The child was abducted, allegedly raped, and murdered in January. Why did the national media not wake up to the crime till April? Was it till other factors came into the story? Regardless of who the perpetrators were, was the incident not heinous enough to merit wide coverage?

At another level, the media sees privacy as less of an issue when it concerns Dalit and working-class victims. Does this explain why the Kathua victim was identified in Kashmir newspapers as soon as news of the crime first emerged? Combined perhaps with the communal angle, it instantly became a story to be followed by newspapers in the Valley. The same angle, however, possibly led to indifference from the majority community, which Rising Kashmir reported in January in an article titled Jammu’s saffron belt silent on Kathua child’s rape and murder.

A two-part investigation in The Hoot into how the media reports rape, looked at reporting in three English dailies over a two-month period in 2017. It found that 34% of reports, by providing names and other details about the perpetrator and his relationship to the victim, made the victim vulnerable to identification.

There are other dimensions that must be considered before journalists rush to report on, or write about, incidents of rape. For instance, should they risk prejudicing a case by writing about evidence that they might have been privy to? In 2014, the Network of Women in Media was sharply critical of two Delhi journalists who wrote articles in defence of former Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal, who was accused of rape by a junior colleague the previous year. In their articles, the journalists had referred to CCTV footage they had viewed. But this footage is not in the public domain, and is likely to have a bearing on the case, which now goes to trial.

When perpetrators of rape are influential, justice is difficult enough to obtain without the media’s heedlessness adding to the odds that are stacked against a victim.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.