The Image Controversy
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and privacy of women, the names, photographs of the victims or other particulars leading to their identity shall not be published”.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.
— Nilanjana Roy (@nilanjanaroy) May 31, 2014
“Such privacies are reserved only for the ‘sacred body’ of the upper-caste woman.” On sharing the Badaun photos. http://t.co/v5LDwiXxUv
— Nilanjana Roy (@nilanjanaroy) June 2, 2014
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?