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Identity crisis

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 16:15 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

A Supreme Court guideline states that the media must not reveal the identity of a rape victim.

Specifically, it means that they should not print her name or publish her photograph.

What is the justification for making an exception to the journalistic rule of fairness and balance when it comes to rape cases, where we freely publish information about the accused but not the victim? The website www.justicejournalism.org provides the following reasons:

* Rape is different from other crimes. Society often blames the victims. Studies show that rape victims suffer from the stigma of being “damaged” by the experience.

* Rape victims are less likely to report the crime if they know that their names will be published or broadcast. Rape is already the most underreported violent crime in the US.

* Because rape victims are treated with such insensitivity by society, they deserve a level of privacy not afforded other crime victims.

But surely, it is possible to disclose a woman’s identity without explicitly naming her or publishing her photograph, is it not?

For this reason, many newspapers, like the HT, usually refrain from revealing information that might betray to a large section of the readership the identity of the woman.

This could include her address or details about her family.

This week, a 23-year-old woman was raped, allegedly by six college boys. (We know from medical tests that she was raped; what is left to be ascertained is whether the accused are guilty.)

The newspapers all told us that she is American, that she is a visiting student at a particular department at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Deonar, that she has a friend called Annie Brown.

Certainly, this is not information that would reveal her identity to the vast number of newspaper readers in the city. But it is enough information for those on the campus of the social science institute to figure out who she is.

So although spared from the humiliation of becoming a household name in the city, the rape victim has likely become a well-known name at least on one campus because the institution was named.

But isn’t this exactly the environment in which the rape victim may not want to be identified? If the rape victim is to have any chance of being rehabilitated and continue with her studies in the same institution, it may have been better if her cohorts did not know what happened to her.

She could have decided with whom she wanted to share the information.

What exact purpose was served by naming the Tata Institute of Social Sciences? Would it have been enough if newspapers said “a reputed institution of higher learning”? Have newspapers obeyed the letter of the law, but not its spirit? Stavan Desai, the head of HT’s crime and legal reporting department, explained that although the institute had nothing to do with the crime, he feels that many parents of college-going children would want to know the name of the institution where the woman studied. I instinctively understand this, but cannot rationally explain why.

Do readers have any opinions?