Reporting on rape: Have we forgotten the lessons from Delhi?

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 08, 2013 08:08 hrs

“An issue (sexism) which I am frankly surprised to hear people suddenly care about.”

(Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton in a Saturday Night Live sketch riffing off sexist coverage of Sarah Palin and Clinton during the 2008 US presidential election)

I confess that this line has been on my mind a lot over the past month, as the agitation and outrage over the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi last December seemed to sweep the country. I do not wish to be cynical, but this line summed up my initial reactions before I gave in to optimism and pride that the youth of the country – people of my age and younger were angry and upset and wanted change. Women were tired of being set curfews and told how to dress, and blamed for crimes against us. Now, more than a month later, I have mixed feelings. Yes, there has been positive change, but I am wondering if I was right to suspect that much of the anger about the horrific rape was related to optics – the class of the victim and location of the crime. Let me explain why.

Less than a month ago, the family of the young lady who was raped, and who died, gave an interview to the Sunday Mirror. They said they were willing to be identified. They apparently said they wanted their daughter’s name known. Most sections of the Indian media were outraged. People on social networking sites were outraged. “Why do we need to know this young lady’s name? Why should we violate the family’s privacy in this manner? There is a law to protect the identity of a rape victim.” This was admirable restraint given that for years now women’s and child rights groups have urged greater restraint in reporting of crimes against women: “If you mention the class the child is in, the locality of the school and the location of the child’s residence in the report then you are virtually identifying the child,” a child rights activist has told me time and again. So the restraint and outrage was admirable. But the cynicism comes in when one realises that this restraint and outrage have not trickled over to reporting of rape or sexual violence in general. And worse, no one seems to have noticed. No one is angry. Have we only space for one rape victim in our hearts?

Take for instance the coverage of the recent conviction of a man in Coimbatore for the rape of his 23-year-old daughter over a period of four years. At least two English newspapers in Chennai published the report along with the picture of the man in custody. They also provided his name, the name of the victim’s mother and brother (who had turned hostile) and the location of the family’s residence as provided in the FIR while not naming the victim. How does that provide any protection to the identity of the rape victim?

Newspapers and television news are the source of information for a majority of people in this country. If the media “plays” up a story it can feed into public outrage. While the Delhi gang rape taught the media sensitivity in reporting and covering sexual violence (to some extent), the lessons need to trickle down to the coverage of every crime of this nature – not just the famous ones, not just the Delhi ones, not just the brutal ones. Every victim of sexual violence endures trauma. Every one of them is a Nirbhaya or Amanat or Damini. He or she needs the same sensitivity and protection, same outrage and anger, and same care in being written about – even if it’s only in a crime brief on page 4.

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Ranjitha Gunasekaran studied English and Mass Communications before joining The New Indian Express reporting team in 2006, covering urban local bodies and heritage. 

She left the paper to help the Communications department of The Banyan, an NGO which works with destitute mentally ill women before rejoining the Express Weekend section. She covered gender, mental health, development and edited the paper's Sexualities section, the first of its kind in the country. She headed the Weekend section from August 2010 to April 2011 before leaving to help ideate on and launch a daily school edition of the newspaper. 

She loves dogs and food and has written about the latter for the Express lifestyle magazine, Indulge, from 2009. She quit her job in October to focus on her writing.

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