Page 12 of the April 18 edition of MUMBAI MIRROR had an entire page devoted to criticism of its reportage of the alleged gang rape of a foreign student of a reputed institution in Mumbai. The headline was sensational, as sensational as the reportage that was objected to by ten readers whose views were published: Mirror is sensational * (AND OUR READERS DON'T MEAN IT IN A GOOD WAY).
The newspaper admitted that it has been "flooded with letters asking if it was indeed necessary to run the statement of the victim, a public document, in all its graphic detail." The questions raised, it said in the introduction to the set of ten views was that its intention was not to sensationalize and harm the interests of the victim. It went on to admit that, judging by the reader response, the newspaper had "misjudged" and apologized for offending reader sensibilities.
That was indeed a big climb down. The space accorded to the story, the prominence, despite the location being an inside page, was commendable. Obviously, the MUMBAI MIRROR made only partial amends for its error and that is not enough. It had not named the victim but left no doubt as to where she could be found - a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), a white and her age. Even in a large city like Mumbai, that was enough set of coordinates to spot her.
They pointed out to the Times of India group that Section 228 (A) of the Indian Penal Code does not allow disclosure of the identity of such victims. Even if the person is not directly named, but sufficient details are provided as to the name of the institution etc. that would amount to assisting in zeroing in on the victim's identity. The demonstrators had a specific point to make: the newspaper apologized to the "sensibilities of the readers" and not the victim. It owed such an apology to her.
That is why it did not soothe the community of women who rightly decided to take the issue further. The day this item was published, eight women's groups, including female students from the TISS demonstrated before the offices of the Times of India which owns the MUMBAI MIRROR.
Though this demonstration was directed against the MUMBAI MIRROR specifically, its import has to be digested by all the media. Strangely, this demonstration was not reported in any of the half a dozen big Mumbai newspapers I read everyday, including Marathi newspapers, the next day. Television news channels were of course preoccupied with the election trivia, including their exclusives like Priyanka Gandhi-Vadera's views on her mother and brother as if that mattered a lot.
Was it a peer support to an offending newspaper because others too have been careless - even reckless - in how they approach a story? Or was it the fear that if they too point out the mistake of another, the fingers could be pointed at them next time? Several newspapers have had not minded naming the victims, including minor girls, of heinous offences. There is scarce a newspaper which has not offended in this fashion at one time or the other and got away with it. To my mind, a report on the demonstration would have sensitized the news crews of all publication to the need to be careful while reporting such cases.
The exception, however, was The Hindu which carried a story with a picture and abundant quotes from those demonstrating before the Times of India building and one is glad that it did. After all, newspapers tend to forget that victims have their rights too and that one is protection of their identities. It is expected that child victims and women victims, regardless of their age are not to have their names or pictures published. It goes beyond mere protection of privacy; it hinges on how the society would react to them when it gets out that they were raped.
In this context, it has to be pointed out that newspapers, at least in Mumbai, need to curb their excesses when reporting crime. As pointed out earlier in a comment on use of language, I had pointed out how even the minor precaution of the use of the word alleged is lacking in newspapers though it helps disclaim responsibility to an extent for retailing a view or fact of which they are not aware of first hand. This is minimal requirement, we were told in our journalism schools in the early 70s.
For the past few weeks, however, the Times of India has started using 'alleged' in italics which is a welcome thing.
News media, especially and including the television news channels, have a tendency to be the prosecutor and the judge rolled into one and often I have heard from the journalistic community to which I belong that "it happened, so why not report it"? It is not as simple as that. The immense damage such an attitude causes the hapless victims are so enormous that often an apology does not mitigate the hurt caused.
It is true that often the victims are people who may never even have managed to read what is said about them so the question of them seeking a retraction or filing a suit does not seem even remotely possible. One of the reasons is lack of appreciation of their own rights or ability to seek redress directly or via the court of law. But that does not allow the media houses to run amok: it has a responsibility because it is a fourth pillar. Often, they tend to forget that.