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An Article of Faith

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The media, the world over, has to abide by certain principles and ethics when reporting on suicides, rapes and child abuse. This has sadly been forgotten in the race for TRPs.

By Rahul Shyam Bhandari

The media is the Fourth Pillar of our democracy along with the legislaure, the executive and the judiciary. Mahatma Gandhi had said: “Freedom of press is a precious privilege that no country can forego.” But he also cautioned: “The Press is called the Fourth Estate. It is definitely a power but to misuse that power is criminal.” However, much has changed since then.

Today in the race for TRPs, the truth is often forgotten. Names and identities of victims are often compromised to spice up the news. Ethical and moral practices are often ignored when reporting on sensitive cases relating to suicides, rapes and child abuse. This has been a challenge globally.

Take the coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s alleged suicide. Pictures of him lying on a bed with a ligature mark on the neck were circulated in the media, especially social media, in complete transgression of Press Council of India (PCI) guidelines on reporting suicides. Another sensational picture which caused outrage in Kashmir was that of a three-year-old child sitting atop his dead grandfather’s body in Sopore even as security forces claimed that the man was shot during a gun battle with terrorists. His family, however, claimed that security forces had shot him and staged the scene. Similarly, reports of child rape victims completely transgress the norms laid down about anonymity. The Kathua rape victim’s photo, for example, was initially splashed all over the media.

The PCI has laid down exhaustive guidelines regarding the conduct of media. The fundamental objective of journalism is to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased, sober and decent manner. Thus, the press is expected to stick to the norms of professionalism, which are universally recognised. Reports on suicides clearly mandate not publishing them prominently, not unduly repeating them and not using sensational headlines, photos and video footage and using social media links. Guidelines also clearly prohibit stigmatisation of children and categorisation, keeping the identity of the child victim confidential and even in cases of informed consent the victim must be protected against all harm.

Globally, the foundation of ethics in journalism can be traced to various international agreements and declarations like the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and regulations of international law. In fact, UNESCO’s declaration regarding mass media and the Paris Declaration, based on the basic tenets of international law, democracy and independence, prescribe ethical guidelines for media and journalism.

UNICEF has laid down principles for ethical reporting on issues affecting children. Ethical reporting includes not compromising the rights, dignity and respect of the children, with high priority to privacy and confidentiality. The child’s or the guardian’s permission must be obtained for all interviews, videotaping or documentary photographs. “Any story or an image which might put the child, siblings or peers at risk even when identities are changed, obscured or not used” must not be published, it says.

Similarly, gender-based violence is a sensitive topic dealing with rape, sexual abuse, child marriage, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, emotional violence, domestic violence and harassment, among others. The United Nations Fund for Population Activities says that reporters must avoid euphemistic language (e.g., “had his way with her”) and instead use accurate language (e.g., “he raped her”) so as not to lead to misleading reports. The practice of “informed consent of the interviewee is essential so that the person is aware of the potential risks of appearing in the media and community ostracisation later on”. It is also important to differentiate between what is “in the public interest” and what is “of interest to the public”. Also, the practice of “jigsaw identification” while describing a gender-based violence survivor, mostly fails to grant anonymity to her and hence becomes its own undoing. We also find various internationally recognised principles on reporting of sensitive cases such as of suicide in a dignified manner without compromising the dignity and investigation of the case.

Coming to the Indian media, there have been news reports which have been shocking.

  • In the early hours of November 28, 2019, a charred body of a 27-year-old veterinary surgeon was discovered under a culvert in Chatanpally on the Hyderabad-Bengaluru National Highway. On her way back home, her vehicle got punctured and she was approached by a few truck drivers who raped, murdered and set her ablaze. In absolute disregard of the 2018 guidelines issued by the apex court in the Nipun Saxena judgment, media houses, including social media, infringed on the deceased’s privacy by putting her name out in the public domain. Section 228A of the IPC clearly prohibits disclosure of the identity of the victim.

The Supreme Court in Nipun Saxena and Anr vs Union of India laid down detailed guidelines for reporting sensitive cases and heinous offences of rape. The Court discussed various incidents of reporting that clearly violated the law by giving out the identity of the victim. One such report said that the rape victim had topped the board examination with the name of the state. No rocket science is required here to establish her identity. Another instance involved video footage showing the blurred face of the victim but her relatives, neighbours and name of the village are clearly visible. This too amounts to disclosing her identity.

Justice Deepak Gupta who authored the judgment observed that “no doubt it is the duty of the media to report every crime which is committed however media should be cautious not to sensationalise the same. The media should refrain from talking to the victim because every time the victim repeats the tale of misery, the victim again undergoes the trauma which he/she has gone through. Reportage of such cases should be done sensitively keeping the best interest of the victims, both adult and children, in mind. Sensationalising such cases may garner Television Rating Points (TRPs) but does no credit to the credibility of the media”.

There are many cases of unethical reporting in the international media too. Some of them are:

  • The Bluebeard Case (2004, Viet­nam)—On October 20, 2004, Capital Security, a newspaper in Vietnam, exposed the “Bluebeard” Case where a 13-year-old girl called Thu was sexually abused by a 66-year-old neighbour. The report was brief but the headline stressed the huge age difference between the victim and the offender whose picture along with his full name and address was also published. The victim was identified by the initials of her name and it was mentioned that she lived in the same ward as her perpetrator. This jigsaw method of identification only allows people to piece together details, compromising the survivor’s privacy.
  • Rape and assault of aid workers by soldiers (August 2016, South Sudan)—an Associated Press report exposed the story about rapes and attacks on aid workers in South Sudan and “read like a pitch for a Hollywood movie”, said Megan Nobert, an international criminal and human rights lawyer, in her article in The Guardian, “How should the media report rape and sexual violence?” Nobert condemned the magnitude of the details provided by the writer, Jason Patinkin, calling it “salacious”. Natalie McCauley from Humanitarian Wellbeing, an organisation that provides counselling services to aid workers, stated that the article re-triggered the incident for them.

Though the Constitution doesn’t explicitly express “freedom of press” in Article 19, it is included in Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court has held in many of its decisions that while freedom of speech and expression is one of the most valuable rights guaranteed to a citizen and should be jealously guarded by courts, the Constitution itself has prescribed certain limits for it within Article 19(2). This also includes the manner of reporting by the media. Hence, reporting cases of suicide and heinous offences of rape should be done within the prescribed limits.

A commendable example of reporting was in 2015 when The Guardian reported that Brock Allen Turner, a 19-year-old student, was to be charged with five counts of felony rape after he was allegedly found on top of an unconscious woman at Stanford University. The Huffington Post and The Los Angeles Times also reported on similar lines where the only detail revealed about the victim was that she was a “visitor to the campus”. Moreover, terms like “the woman was drunk” or “the victim was under the influence of alcohol” were nowhere to be found. Credit must be given to the Indian media too for its sensitive reporting of the Nirbhaya case of 2012 as it didn’t compromise the identity of the victim.

A survey by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2018 found that 109 children are sexually abused every day, one rape is reported every 15 minutes and 28 suicides take place daily in India. These incidents have a distressing impact on the victim’s family, friends and the community. The rights of victims are sacrosanct in such cases.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for the media to report such cases sensibly and responsibly. After all, the information provided by it is the closest that the public can get to any issue and can tremendously affect opinion. The media is not a mere tool but a torchbearer for a healthy democracy. Therefore, a responsible, sensible and uncompromised media is a necessity.

—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court

Lead Picture: BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar surrounded by TV crews in 2018 after being accused in a rape case. The media often ignores ethical practices while reporting sensitive cases

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