The Image Controversy

We speak to journalists and activists about the Badaun images going viral, and whether they should have been published at all.


On May 27, 2014, news reports appeared about two teenage Dalit girls (cousins) who’d been raped and killed – although the Uttar Pradesh government claims they are not from the Dalit community. The girls had been raped and then hanged from a tree in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. Incensed by alleged police inaction, the families refused to take down the bodies from the tree for several hours. The images of the girls hanging from the tree went viral on social media. At least one major newspaper, Dainik Bhasker, published them. Many newspapers carried images of the immediate surroundings, the families of the victims and their homes.

Revealing the name of a rape victim is punishable under Indian Penal Code, 1860. Section 228A Indian Penal Code prohibits the disclosure not only of the victim’s name, but also of facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, such as the place of residence, identifying or naming the victim’s family or friends, university, or work details.

The Norms of Journalistic Conduct issued by the Press Council of India in 2010 states that “while reporting crime involving rape, abduction or kidnap of women/females or sexual assault on children, or raising doubts and questions touching the chastity, personal character and privacy of women, the names, photographs of the victims or other particulars leading to their identity shall not be published”.

Newslaundry spoke to journalists, activists and lawyers to get their viewpoints on the matter.

When Newslaundry contacted Jason Burke of Guardian (whose report on the incident happened to carry a picture of the father of one of the victim’s), he said he reported the story as per the “highest ethical and professional standards”. Burke, however, refused to comment when we asked if he had taken permission from the victims’ relatives before using their photo.

Activist ShreyaIla Anusuya, who was responsible for organising a candle-lit march in Jantar Mantar against the rapes, condemned the media for publishing the images. She said the media’s action amounted to violation of child rights and breach of privacy of the victim. “We should also remember that this is not just a case of sexual violence but at the same time a case of caste discrimination. We can’t afford to ignore the intersection between caste and gender. If we simply focus on gender we forget that it is a caste based case also”, she added.

Samrat Choudhury, editor of the Mumbai edition of Asian Age, said that it is not a black-and-white issue. While he said that publishing such images may lead to an invasion of the victim’s privacy and her right to dignity, he added that it also prevents injustice, creates awareness and exerts pressure on the government to take action.

Journalist Rupa Subramanya in a detailed blog post – where she suggests that seeing the images was necessary to confront the truth – wrote, “It was our visceral reaction to this graphic detail which I believe allowed what might have otherwise been yet another ‘routine’ case of rape and violence in our cities and neighbourhoods to assume the importance it did.

In a similar vein, Sunetra Choudhury of NDTV tweeted the following:


Author Nilanjana Roy, however, was categorically critical of the media publishing the images.




In a column for Firstpost, journalist Sandip Roy questioned the necessity of explicit images to stir one’s conscience against a crime as brutal as rape (and murder in this case). He wrote: “The gang rape of the young woman in that bus in Delhi touched a national chord and spurred the government into action into passing a stricter anti-rape law. That did not require us to see her brutalized body. If indeed we now need to see the ‘strange fruit’ on our mango trees to be shocked, it begs the question about what kind of people we have become anyway”.

Some see the images as an act of protest, something that the “have nots” used to effectively jolt the “haves” out of complacency. Yet, the outrage following the Delhi rape case depended on no images. Vis-à-vis these girls (marginalised by both gender and caste), is this what “needed to be done” to make the state and its citizenry sit up and take notice? Or is this an obscene form of voyeuristic journalism? Something that was only possible because these girls came from one of the most powerless sections of our socio-economic set up. One last thought – does the “hiding away” of these victims assume a stigma even before it is practically realised? Yes, the law allows images and identification if authorised by the victim/next of kin, but when has that been exercised? Right now, perhaps this law makes sense given the context, but is there any move to think of a tomorrow where “stigma” isn’t foremost on the victim’s mind – but justice is?

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  • Liberal_Capitalist

    I dont know what stigma really is or should it even matter when it is almost exclusively used as a tool to subjugate women in our society. Why should the woman feel stigmatized for being raped, its the inhuman rapist who should be stigmatized by the society for having lost all sense of humanity within them. Its the rapist’s family who should held their head low in shame for being associated in some way with such a disgrace of a living sack of mean in human form, not the poor victim. Its time society realized a rape is nothing more than assault by a rabid animal in human form and is never the fault of the victim as is never in case of attack by a rabid animal.

    Coming to the issues related with identification of the victim, I think it should be at no ones but the victims or in cases of death, her family’s discretion on whether to allow the victim to be identified. If the woman/family members decide to take a stand and not let the society turn its face away in shame as it always does in such cases and confront them, asking for answers, asking why cant a woman ever feel truly free while walking on a street, demanding justice and punishment for the perpetrators, demanding steps from the government and measures from society so that when the next generation grows up, they dont have to live in the same fear of such barbarians as women have to now. I wouldnt look at such victim/her family differently, I would rather respect them for their bravery. At the same time, if the woman/her family decide that, one animal attack shouldnt define the rest of their lives or make them who they are and simply to take a brave step and move on to normalcy and getting along with life, I would respect that decision too and call it equally brave. Either of the choices arent easy and at the end of the day are just that, touch but very personal choice and whatever they maybe, we should all respect that.

    Coming to the case being discussed, I wouldnt say much but simply that, yes, as a society, I do feel, we have been to an extent desensitized and while i hold my head low while accepting that fact, I do understand the need for change and to jolt the collective conscious of the society which took to streets after the rape case in delhi december 2012. They way I look it, each such horrific incident that has happened after that day when we collectively as a nation decided, no more, is a much needed chilli on the emotional wounds we forgot about/got desensitized in the months that followed after, the wounds would not heal unless we start treating this problem, the sickness of those animals would never ever let us develop enough tolerance to simply forget our wounds. Those images of the girls hanging from the mango tree is a remainder to the mango person that the resolve s/he took that day in December is far from its fulfillment and is a long road ahead filled with such sickos that would make the last guy look like a flower salesman.

  • not_that_guy

    check this tweet …. reaction of @sonalndtv is highly insensitive –

  • ashu

    Delhi elites and journalists who are sharing these photos to evoke outrage should be condemned.Sensitive people connected with the realities of India don’t need photos to feel outraged.The same people were running campaigns to protect the identity of tehelka case victim.

  • I tend to agree with Ms Subramanya that the images were powerful and added context to what is otherwise a routine tiny headline tucked away in a corner of our newspapers, on a page we would at best skim through.
    Parallels drawn with the Delhi rape are incongruous, a crime of that magnitude in the national capital was bound to generate the outrage that it did. Stories about dalit women in a village in UP are a different ball-game, and the image was a game-changer.

    To be very clear, it is precisely that image that catapulted this incident onto the front pages and into social media conversations. It was the image that caused this website to write 2 articles about this specific crime, that prompted a journalist to question the CM , and that caused politicians of all stripes to make their way down to Badaun.

    I only wish that in disseminating the image, two things had been done. First, a pixellation of the faces of the dead, (to comply with the law but also ensure the image is treated with dignity). Second, PERMISSION from the parents of the girls, so that their agency was not snatched away by the media.