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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