Protect privacy

ROHINI MOHAN writes about the trauma of publicity for survivors of sexual violence

In the Indian Express, Pratiksha Baxi writes about the depressing disconnect between justice to rape survivors and the history of anti-rape laws. While making a case for court proceedings, she also writes about the trauma of publicity, and media representations of sexual violence:

"The trauma is aggravated by publicity, peer pressure and the fear of loss of employment. Hence, counselling must accompany legal assistance. Publicity often produces stigma and the loss of narrative control. Publicity and its pornography, far from doing justice to survivors, re-enacts the trauma literally by reproducing the contents of the complaint or visualising the crime. The logic of publicity is to convert testimony into spectacle, where the ways of looking itself produce pleasure, excitement or entertainment. 

Media representations of sexual violence make sexual violence sexy. Alternatively, tabloid shock and horror fills print and visual columns. Voyeuristic representations of violence act as the pedagogy of rape. Gender, ironically, becomes an instrument for the politics of patriarchy. 

In the aftermath of the Delhi protests, the nature of journalistic practices in relation to representing sexual violence did not really find serious discussion or action (other than the need to blank out the name of the survivor). Nor did the discursive shift in the streets, which resounded with the slogan of "azadi", mean greater dignity for women journalists in their workplaces. Many women journalists who covered the Delhi protests experienced sexism in their workplaces — male dominated studios or offices — as rape stories went to press. Women journalists spoke of sexualised banter about rape in their workplaces as they worked on their stories about resisting sexual violence. It is lacerating that the debates on rape law reform did not infuse new life into the ethics of the profession, its code of conduct or its policies.

After the Delhi Nirbhaya case, many journalists accept that redacting the victim's name is a must. This requirement also has legal force, since revealing the identity of a victim is punishable with up to 2 years jail time. 

But if we took a step further, and asked if details of the sexual assault– the act itself, the clothes the victim wore, what the scene was– should at all be revealed in excruciating detail, it stirs a hornet's nest.

Some argue that the Tehelka journalist's email should be publicised for the public to know the gravity of the crime, which the accused Tarun Tejpal tried to underplay by calling it "drunken banter". But as Baxi argues, shouldn't the victim have some say over what she wants revealed to the public? After all, she did courageously report the crime. Also, this is a high profile case, and one that occured in the media's own backyard, so the pitch is shrill, and the analysis scathing. In such a case, anonymity is far from guaranteed. There are blogs with the victim's pictures. Some voyeurs disguised as do-gooders are mass-circulating the journalist's initial complaint to Shoma Chaudhury, without even removing her name. In fact, they have highlighted it in red. Regional newspapers carry her father's name, her friends' names, and guessing from her surname, where she is from. These are not aberrations – a shameful majority of social and mainstream is doing this.

In this environment where privacy is not yet assured, should we not be more careful with the details of the sexual assault? In a media industry this competitive, I can imagine this question creating a huge argument in the newsroom. Cynically, or perhaps realistically, I am aware that few editors will be ready to hold back information for the sake of sensitivity. No journalist loses his/her job for being insensitive. You don't go to jail for being insensitive. It is the journalistic quality that is most easily dispensable. 

In the past week, a quote has been haunting me. A few days ago, a friend, a TV reporter, narrated an incident. She covered the Pascal Mazurier case,where a Bangalore-based French diplomat was charged with raping his child. When she asked Ms Mazurier, the mother who filed a complaint against her husband, whether she believed justice would be done, this is what the woman said:

"This man might go to jail, but thanks to Google, my child will never ever forget what happened to her."

Rohini Mohan is a journalist who covers politics, religion and human rights in South Asia. In the last 10 years, she has traveled across India, Sri Lanka and Nepal writing for Tehelka magazine, national daily The Hindu, travel magazine Outlook Traveller, The Caravan magazine, and news channel CNN-IBN. She also has a Masters in political journalism from Columbia University, New York. Among the awards she had received are those from the International Committee for the Red Cross for reporting on conflict in 2012, the Charles Wallace India Trust Writing Fellowship for 2013, the Prabha Dutt-Sanskriti fellowship for journalism in 2012, the Mumbai Press Club Award for environmental reporting in 2011, and the South Asian Journalists' Association Reporting Award in 2010. She has lived in and loved New Delhi, Chennai and New York. She is now a freelance writer based in Bangalore. She is working on a non-fiction book set in postwar Sri Lanka.