The media is considered to be the fourth pillar of democracy and is expected to report facts without bias or prejudice. But multiple cases of rape reporting have recently become infamous for reasons including victim shaming, supporting regressive patriarchal values and identity politics. Though frivolous reporting is not illegal, revealing the victims’ identities violates their right to privacy and is an offence. But the media continues to reveal the identities of the victims of sexual crimes without any repercussions because of policy gaps and the lack of effective enforcement of laws. When the state ignores principles of natural justice, gender equality and basic human rights, the survivors become victims of state apathy and not just rape.
Several news organisations have come under fire for how they report rape and other sexual crimes. The Times of India, in particular, has been criticised for an article which violated the law by revealing the identity of a rape victim. Similarly, Kairali TV has also been heavily criticised for its reporting on an incident involving a famous Malayalam actress.
When reporting an incident, the journalist must only state the relevant facts without bias. As seen recently, many news stories on rape in India usually do not follow these guidelines. They include details of the event which have been interpreted and reflect the bias of the police or even the writer or editor. This can be seen if the information provided, for example, mentions the victim’s ethnicity, where it is clearly irrelevant, her sartorial choices and other personal details. These details add no value to the report, apart from suggesting that men should be absolved of the crime in question because the woman basically brought it upon herself.
Reporting on the location of the incident is not harmful, but highlighting details regarding the location of the victim’s workplace and her home can often make it easy to identify the individual. These instances of media reporting urge us to focus on the need to respect the privacy of the victim.
Privacy rights of the victim must be respected, as per the 2009 Delhi high court judgment in Delhi Commission for Women vs Delhi Police, which states that the identity of the victim cannot be made public. Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code says that the punishment for revealing a victim’s identity is upto two years imprisonment and a fine, unless it is under the order in writing of the officer in charge of the police station, with authorisation in writing from the victim and where the victim is dead, a minor or of unsound mind, by, or with the authorisation in writing from, the next of kin of the victim. Despite having laws which protect not just the name but any matter that may make known the identity of the victim, there have been multiple instances in which identities have been revealed and there is a clear variance in interpretation by courts and standards applied to cases.
Women in India suffer shame for being raped because it undermines her “value” to be known as the damaged “property” of her husband or father. Thus, it is important to protect the identity of rape victims to prevent further scrutiny and stigma. This is especially important in case of minor victims. The cases of Delhi Commission for Women chairperson Swati Maliwal, AAP leader, booked for revealing the identity of a Dalit girl raped in Burari, Alka Lamba, booked for sharing the photograph of a rape victim online, a member of the Rajasthan State Commission for Women who faced criticism for posting a selfie with a rape victim, the Bihar police posting names and addresses of two rape victims on Facebook, and many more such cases, highlight the lack of clarity on the subject. Further, a study by Rahat, a support programme for rape survivors initiated by the NGO, Majlis, that surveyed over 600 people over three years, had in 2015 revealed that in 36% of cases between 2011-12, the victim’s name appeared in the judgment of the trial court despite the Supreme Court guidelines to keep it confidential. The judiciary, which is supposed to uphold the law, has violated provisions multiple times, setting a very bad example for law enforcement and reporters.
Further, there are many policy gaps that need to be filled. The procedure for reporting on sexual crimes must be followed by all media reporters and the penalty for non-compliance must be strictly enforced. There must be written rules for all law enforcement, media and medical personnel dealing with survivors of sexual crimes and the absence of the same is a glaring gap. Medical personnel must be trained in extracting information without humiliating the victim or making them uncomfortable. The Indian Evidence Act, under Section 155(4), no longer allows a rape victim’s credibility to be compromised on the ground that she is “of generally immoral character” but, more often than not, survivors feel judged and are sometimes even accused of lying. There is underreporting of incidents and victims are afraid of coming forward owing to the traditional notion of ‘honour’ and the fear of being ostracised. Only about one in four rape cases results in convictions.
The justice system and the media must facilitate access to justice for victims, without prejudice. Lack of enforcement of pre-existing policies to protect the victim by the state restricts their access to justice. This apathy of the state allows the media to influence public opinion negatively against women. Talking about sex is still a taboo in India, which negatively effects victims of sexual crimes. Policy makers must push for enforcing laws which uphold the privacy of victims and written laws must be available with all law enforcement and medical personnel. The stigma surrounding rape victims, based on regressive patriarchal mindsets, must be dealt with by trying to change public opinion, using the media in a positive way. Reporters have the power to influence public opinion, they must be responsible in using that power.
India can take note of developed countries like the US, which are promoting gender quality by opening dialogue on the constitutional privacy rights of victims. And though some feminists are also debating whether the law should allow the naming of victims to remove the element of shame associated with victims of rape, others have noted that this would be an unacceptable breach of privacy rights and would also affect the willingness of victims to report sexual crimes.
In the Jyoti Singh rape case, one of the most violent rape cases in the country, the victim’s parents chose to reveal their daughter’s identity. Each case must be handled differently, as revealing the victim’s identity is a very complex and sensitive issue. Though individual case analysis is important, by strictly enforcing pre-existing policies to protect rape victims the government can influence public opinion through the media positively.
Wamika Kapur is a research assistant to legislators at Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, Jawahar Bhavan.