The horrific surge in the number of rape cases being reported poses several challenges to the media. The most obvious is the need for great sensitivity in reporting these cases, protecting the identity of the victims and, if need be, their families. It is also all too easy to reveal the identities of the families of the accused but that too is overstepping ethical boundaries.
Many media outfits seem to have found a way around this. They have quite arbitrarily decided to give the victim a name. So the Delhi gang rape victim was simultaneously called Nirbhaya, Abhaya and Amanat. The little victim of the brutal rape and torture in Delhi has been branded Gudiya and Masoom. And with this, the media outfit appropriates to itself the ownership of this name, this brand. The argument is that this will strengthen the connect with the plight of the victim. That a nameless victim does not generate that much interest.
But it is more likely that this naming comes with an aim to take over the case and push up readership and viewership ratings. The media outfit becomes the custodian of the story, it becomes identified with the name it has given the hapless victim.
It must be asked why only these poignant cases evoke the desire on the part of the media to give pseudonyms. We never hear of the women who are victims of other sorts of violence being given any names. For example, victims who have survived dowry-related violence and victims of acid attacks are only referred to in opaque terms. And rightly so. The law does not permit naming the victims of violence and certainly not underage ones.
So, is it all right in the spirit of things to give a name to a victim without even asking her family whether they agree to this? In all these cases, which have taken place recently, the media has played a sterling role in keeping public attention and interest alive. But it has also appropriated these cases and made them saleable stories and sound bites.
This has led to trepidation that these victims are being used like brands of other consumer durables, their stories attractively packaged and sold for public consumption. There is already an element of ‘we were the first to bring you this story, we now show you exclusive footage’ to these cases. With regard to the December 16 gang rape, irrespective of the sensibilities and legalities pertaining to the case, the media adamantly stuck to the names it had given the victim as they had become identified as the brainchild of one or the other media vehicle.
Perhaps it is time to pause and think. The fact that the rape victim should be anonymous is a given. Then, by that logic, is it all right to give her a public identity even if it is one given by the media? Has the victim been asked whether she would like to be referred to by the moniker given to her by the media? Are the parents comfortable with this sort of ‘branding?’ Today, we actually have debates on whether it is appropriate for one media vehicle or other to use the pseudonym given to a victim by another media outfit? This is to move very far from the real issue. That of justice for the victim and retribution for the perpetrator.