A case as delicate as rape must be handled with sensitivity and sensibility, not just by the judiciary but also by those who report it. The Supreme Court has now ordered absolute protection of the victim’s identity by the media, saying that rape survivors are often ill-treated by the society.
The bench, headed by Justice Madan B Lokur, ordered the print, online and broadcast media to refrain from identifying the victims of rape and sexual assault “even in a remote manner.”
“No person can publish in print, electronic, social media etc. the name of the victim or even in a remote manner disclose any facts which can lead to the victim being identified and which should make her identity known to the public at large,” Justices Lokur and Deepak Gupta said.
When it comes to disclosing the names of victims, several factors such as their ages (to determine whether the victim was a minor or adult), whether they have passed away, or in certain circumstances, even their mental state, come into play. Media houses are instructed to follow the protocol for each of these factors.
Addressing how a survivor is usually treated after the crime, the apex court directed media against revealing their identity.
“Unfortunately, in our society, the victim of a sexual offence, especially a victim of rape, is treated worse than the perpetrator of the crime. The victim is innocent. She has been subjected to forcible sexual abuse. However, for no fault of the victim, society — instead of empathising with the victim — starts treating her as an ‘untouchable’,” the bench said.
Clarifying how the media can or cannot report survivors, the bench said, “In cases where the victim is dead or of unsound mind, the name of the victim or her identity should not be disclosed even under the authorisation of the next of the kin, unless circumstances justifying the disclosure of her identity exist, which shall be decided by the competent authority, which at present is the Sessions Judge.”
Justice Gupta added to the point, saying, “In case of minor victims under POCSO, the disclosure of their identity can only be permitted by the Special Court, if such disclosure is in the interest of the child.”
The bench claimed that media houses use the name of rape victims to sensationalise the case.
Even if the disclosure is done with the aim of bringing clarity, these actions bring long-lasting consequences for the survivors.
“Reportage of such cases should be done sensitively, keeping the best interest of the victims, both adult and children, in mind. Sensationalising such cases may garner Television Rating Points (TRPs) but does no credit to the credibility of the media,” the bench said, adding, “The police officials should keep all the documents in which the name of the victim is disclosed, as far as possible, in a sealed cover and replace these documents by identical documents in which the name of the victim is removed in all records which may be scrutinised in the public domain.”
Justices Lokur and Gupta even dissented about how the survivor is treated in police stations and judicial courts, apart from the media, when they have to relive their experiences and narrate them.
“The victim’s first brush with justice is an unpleasant one where she is made to feel that she is at fault; she is the cause of the crime,” they said, adding that the victims have to go through “harsh cross-examinations” and judgements about their morals and character, while the judges, who can stop this, “sometimes sit like mute spectators and normally do not prevent the defense from asking such defamatory and unnecessary questions”.
At a time when sexual assault cases are widely reported, the orders bring a fresh perspective to reporting. It isn’t just what the media owes to its readers or viewers, but the acknowledgement that it is a person who has to relive a traumatic experience.
Identification of the survivors, either through names or other characteristics that point out to them have become reasons of ill-treatment and sometimes even abandonment of the survivors. With the new orders, however, the survivors can hope for justice without being identified and shamed throughout their lives.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)