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Another rape, more questions

Last week, yet another depressing rape case offered the city’s newspapers a chance to make up for the mistakes they made while covering the rape of the student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 16:40 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

Last week, yet another depressing rape case offered the city’s newspapers a chance to make up for the mistakes they made while covering the rape of the student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

In that case, although none of the newspapers actually divulged the victim’s name, they revealed so many details that people in her immediate environment would have not had a hard time identifying her.

So while they obeyed the letter of the law, which prohibits newspapers from naming a rape victim, they undermined its spirit. This includes Hindustan Times, as I pointed out in this column on April 19.

In last week’s high-profile case, a medical student accused a resident doctor of raping her. HT did not give away any details about the student except that she studies at St George Hospital and is 22 years old. This is certainly not enough information to narrow the field down to one individual.

But we did trip up here too, as some readers pointed out. We (and others) revealed ample information about the man she had accused. Not only did everyone publish his name but they also printed his photograph.

First, by doing this, they might have (without realising it) given away a big clue about who the rape victim is. This, in addition with various other details that appeared in the reports, certainly offers enough for people in their social circle to make an educated guess.

Second, doesn’t the accused also have the same rights as the victim? In some cases, it might be fine to name the accused. But there is no need to print his or her photograph, particularly in a rape case.

Moreover, it is completely beyond the pale of responsible journalism to make it appear as though he is already guilty, as many newspapers did.

The headline that went out on some of our copies was also questionable.

We said, ‘Doctor held for raping medical student.’ This made it sound as if the rape was incontrovertible.

Often, like in the coverage of the Shiney Ahuja case, the media have all but declared the accused guilty.

We need to be very careful about what we decide to do with the information the police pass on to us. We can ruin people’s lives, as we know from the Arushi murder case, where the father was tried and found guilty by the media, based on morsels of information fed by the police.

“I was guilty of not stopping to think—a not uncommon error in newsrooms during peak hours,” said Pravinchandran Nair, HT’s deputy resident editor, responding to readers’ criticism of our report.

“We were swayed by the masala story, excited that we had finally managed to get a photograph without a black hood covering the face of the person arrested by the police,” he said. “With hindsight, I think we should definitely have pixillated the photograph to hide the doctor’s face.”

“One argument I heard was the other papers and TV published it anyway, so us hiding his face would not have served any purpose,” he added. “May be, but it might have made others think twice before publishing such a photograph in the future.”

To some people, this would count as a masala crime. There is no denying that there is some amount of prurient interest in sexual crimes.

But that does not mean we should pander to this interest—especially not responsible broadsheets.

On the contrary, when it is a rape case, all our antennae need to go up.

On a more pleasant note, readers might have noticed our brand new design. We hope you like it. As always, we value criticism as much as praise.