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Media‘s role as the watchdog of any democratic system is well acknowledged and recognized. As the fourth pillar of democracy, it has a responsibility to disseminate accurate and useful information, create public awareness, impart unbiased and investigative reporting, give direction to public opinion and highlight systemic, structural as well as institutional mal-practices.
The recent Hyderabad rape case has again raised questions on the ethics and values of journalism that press hold today whether it be print, electronic or digital media. The media is vital in discussing the problematic social attitudes toward rape and such heinous crimes because of the importance of the role it plays in ‘setting the public opinion’. This influence becomes all the more important when applied to gender-based sexual violence because this remains a subject surrounded by myths and lies which are responsible for shifting the blame for the crime, away from the man and on to the victim. It is also important that the media maintains as much freedom as possible in order to complete its primary function, the freedom to report and discuss matters of public interest.
It is important to critically examine how media represents violence against women, how it uses the language for victim, what information it reveals while reporting because it not only shapes the recipients worldview but also affect their behaviour and lives in a more tangible way as it is based on society’s and media’s recognition that rape is more ‘personal, traumatic, and stigmatizing than most crimes’. High profile rape cases tend to bring the conflict between the media’s right to free speech versus the victim’s right to privacy, to a clash.
Section 228 A of the Indian Penal Code lays down the provisions barring the disclosure of the identity of the victim of certain offences. It reads as –
228A. Disclosure of identity of the victim of certain offences etc.—
Whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity of any person against whom an offence under section 376A (Rape), section 376AB, section 376B (Sexual intercourse by husband upon his wife during separation), section 376C (Sexual intercourse by person in authority.), section 376D (Gang rape.), section 376DA, section 376DB is alleged or found to have been committed (hereafter in this section referred to as the victim) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.
It also states that exception to this can only be provided wherein there is an authorization in writing either by the survivor or in the case where the survivor is dead or is a minor or of unsound mind, by the next of kin of the survivor. A written authorization, in good faith, by the officer-in-charge of the police station or the police officer making the investigation is also acceptable. Even printing of court proceedings that reveal the identity, without prior permission of the court, is punishable.
The Supreme Court in 2018 in furtherance of the same has issued guidelines with regard to this in Nipun Saxena v. Union of India, which stated –
1. No person can print or publish in print, electronic, social media, etc. the name of the victim or even in a remote manner disclose any facts which can lead to the victim being identified and which should make her identity known to the public at large.
2. In cases where the victim is dead or of unsound mind the name of the victim or her identity should not be disclosed even under the authorization of the next of the kin, unless circumstances justifying the disclosure of her identity exist, which shall be decided by the competent authority, which at present is the Sessions, Judge.
3. FIRs relating to offences under Section 376 and all its subsections & offences under POCSO shall not be put in the public domain.
4. In case a victim files an appeal under Section 372 CrPC, it is not necessary for the victim to disclose his/her identity and the appeal shall be dealt with in the manner laid down by law.
5. The police officials should keep all the documents in which the name of the victim is disclosed, as far as possible, in a sealed cover and replace these documents by identical documents in which the name of the victim is removed in all records which may be scrutinized in the public domain.
6. All the authorities to which the name of the victim is disclosed by the investigating agency or the court are also duty-bound to keep the name and identity of the victim secret and not disclose it in any manner except in the report which should only be sent in a sealed cover to the investigating agency or the court.
7. An application by the next of kin to authorize disclosure of identity of a dead victim or of a victim of unsound mind under Section 228A (2) (c) of IPC should be made only to the Sessions Judge concerned until the Government acts under Section 228A (1) (c) and lays down a criteria as per our directions for identifying such social welfare institutions or organizations.
The Raging Debate:-
A discussion in the public regarding whether the name and identity of rape survivors should be revealed in public or not has taken a centre stage. While the law prohibits naming, the Kathua case has encouraged several arguments against this shrouding of identity. Even after the Nirbhaya case, several arguments were made supporting the sentiments of Mrs Asha Singh, Nirbhaya‘s mother, who believed that the victims of such heinous crimes should not be ashamed but instead the perpetrators should be. “I am not ashamed of taking my daughter‘s name. Whoever has suffered should not hide their name.” It is the offenders who should be ashamed and hide their name, she said. Another argument states that society’s incorrect impressions and stereotypes about rape can be eliminated if the press more fully informs viewers and readers about the key facts in a rape case including, in most circumstances, the rape victim’s name as disclosing name increases the credibility of the news and the society is more aptly able to connect with the crime. Similarly, maintaining anonymity is a “demeaning form of self-censorship,” that puts the rape victim in a category apart from other violent crime victims, thereby perpetuating sexist stereotypes.
As India is still a country where a woman’s character is decided by the clothes she wears, by her habits and manners, by the way, she talks. Since the stigma attached to rape is very high, it is more personal and traumatic than other crimes. No matter how much one would want to dispel this stigma, it would take a long and indefinite time to completely get rid of it. Until then, disclosing identity could cause serious trauma and lower the survivor‘s chance of building normal social relations in the near future. The woman can suffer serious anxiety and turmoil over this and her stress will be heightened by the fact that she lives in a particular area and did not want her community to know what has happened. For her, the consequence of media attention and her privacy being infringed is serious emotional distress which will affect her day to day societal relations. There is yet another argument that disclosure instead of dispelling the stigma and shame associated with rape, may further reinforce it – especially for those women who were not raped by a stranger but rather someone relative to them. The disclosure, in that case, can further isolate the survivor in their own social circles.
Most of the times, media reports provide unnecessary details about the rape survivors – such as what she was doing before or after, where she works and from which community she belongs – which is simply not relevant to the case. This kind of over-reporting and irrelevant information not only indulges in indirect victim-blaming, but it also creates negative stereotypes of certain women in the public and dilutes the intensity of rape or violence as a crime.
Rape is a crime which not only shake the conscience of the victim, but it also raises many questions on the society. The focal point to remember in the aftermath of gender-based sexual violence is the fundamental responsibility of all the stakeholders involved – whether it be the family of the survivor, police authorities, investigating agencies or the media – is to ensure that the survivor regains control over their lives and is mentally recuperating so as to make effective decisions for one‘s future. The privacy of the survivor should be given paramount importance as she has to start her life again in the same society which has judged her in the past and which will judge her even more in the future.