Journalists Criticise Gag Orders on Media Coverage of Sexual Assault Cases

The group has expressed concerns over the rising trend of "powerful men seeking gag orders on the media" in sexual assault and harassment cases. 

New Delhi: The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) along with many eminent personalities and journalists have expressed concerns over the rising trend of “powerful men seeking gag orders on the media” in sexual assault and harassment cases.

In a detailed statement, the signatories have made examples of situations where such gagging has occurred. The signatories refer to the latest instance where the accused obtained a gag order on any media coverage by a trial court in the alleged abduction and assault of a woman actor in Kerala. Hearings on the case are currently underway in Ernakulam trial court.

The trial commenced in-camera in January 2020. In March, the accused obtained a gag order from the court against the media’s coverage of the case. In September, he filed a petition in the same court against 10 media houses for allegedly violating the gag order – the hearings in this matter, too, are currently ongoing, the statement noted.

This pattern of seeking gag orders against reportage in such cases by the accused has now become a trend, said the statement, which cited other examples of powerful men across fields obtaining such gag orders.

“We stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual harassment and assault. While prioritising the privacy and dignity of survivors above all else, we believe that responsible reporting of broad facts in rape trials is in the interests of justice,” the group said.

Also read: Survey of 500 Women Finds 1 in 10 Had Been Sexually Assaulted in Higher Education Institutions

A long queue of cases

When sexual harassment allegations against BJP MP Tejasvi Surya surfaced on social media in March 2019, he obtained a temporary injunction from a Bengaluru sessions court banning 49 media outlets from publishing anything “defamatory” or “derogatory” against him.  The following month, the Karnataka high court set aside the injunction.

In July 2020, the Delhi high court lifted its 2017 gag order restraining publication of articles and comments on sexual harassment allegations against Mumbai-based venture capitalist Mahesh Murthy. In 2014, the Delhi high court had issued a gag order on publication and telecast of a law intern’s sexual harassment complaint against a former Supreme Court judge.

Earlier this year, an ad-interim injunction was passed by a court in New Delhi directing several publications to take down articles about sexual harassment complaints against a sitting Rajya Sabha MP’s son, while he himself pursued a defamation suit against one of his accusers as well as various media platforms that ran the story.

“In the context of rape in particular, a trend where the accused seeks to prevent media from covering trials presents a unique challenge for media reportage,” notes the statement.

According to news reports, the petition filed by the Malayalam actor argues that “the continued illegal act of publishing matters in relation to the in-camera proceedings in this case” are calculated to injure his reputation and violate his fundamental right to fair trial.

The choice of words in the petition underlines the irony of the situation: Section 327(2) of the CrPC mandates that rape inquiries and trials should be conducted in-camera; and Section 327(3) mandates that it is unlawful to print or publish any matter related to in-camera proceedings without the court’s previous permission.

“These provisions cannot be invoked by accused persons to silence the media or women survivors…Anonymity is given by law to a woman survivor, and not to hide the misdeeds of a male accused,” NWIM says.

These legal provisions were introduced in India with the intention of safeguarding the identity and privacy of survivors in a society that tends to shame women who have faced sexual assault and harassment. They were not introduced to protect the reputation of a person accused of committing an offence of rape, their statement reads.

Also read: SC Must Stop Courts From Asking for ‘Compromise Between Parties’ in Sexual Assault Cases

Intimidation of witnesses

The statement also makes a case for the intimidation of witnesses through the use of gag orders.

“Clearly, there can be no public opinion if there is no information in the public realm. We believe this is why powerful accused are increasingly trying to suppress the social media and news media, in a scenario where most systems are already weighted heavily in their favour,” NWMI said in the statement.

Also read: Of Men Like Mice: The Legal System’s Historic Apathy Towards Gender Justice

“We appreciate the vigilance of courts against irresponsible journalism, but urge that responsible, sensitive reporting of basic facts such as witnesses not turning up, witnesses retracting previous statements, hostile behaviour of the accused against the survivor and so on, should be allowed in the public interest and in the interests of the victim/survivor,” the group said.

The full list of signatories is below:

  1. K.R. Meera, Writer
  2. Aleyamma Vijayan,  SakhiKerala
  3. J. Devika, Feminist historian
  4. Sugathakumari, Poet and activist
  5. Viji Palithodi, Activist
  6. Mercy Alexander, SakhiKerala
  7. Meera Velayudhan, Policy Analyst
  8. V. Geetha, Feminist historian
  9. Janaki Nair, Historian
  10. Nivedita Menon, Professor, JNU
  11. Kalpana Kannabiran, Director, CSD
  12. Anitha Thambi, Poet
  13. V.M. Girija, Poet
  14. Professor Mary E John, Centre for Women’s Development Studies
  15. Sreerekha Sathi, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague
  16. Darshana S. Mini, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  17. Jayasree Kalathil, Survivor Research, London and translator
  18. Rekha Raj, Feminist thinker, activist
  19. Janaki Abraham, Sociologist and Professor
  20. K. Satchidanandan, Writer
  21. BRP Bhaskar, Senior journalist
  22. N.S. Madhavan, Writer
  23. Sashi Kumar, Senior journalist
  24. Vinod K. Jose, Executive Editor, The Caravan
  25. Josy Joseph, Editor, Azhimukham
  26. Manu Pillai, Author
  27. Anwar Ali, Poet