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No minor matter

A 10-year-old girl crippled during the terrorist attack last year identified Mohammad Ajmal Kasab in court on Wednesday as having fired indiscriminately at her and others at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 16:27 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

A 10-year-old girl crippled during the terrorist attack last year identified Mohammad Ajmal Kasab in court on Wednesday as having fired indiscriminately at her and others at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Her testimony was widely reported, as it should have been. “He is the one,” she said, pointing to Kasab, the only terrorist the Mumbai police caught alive after the November 26 attacks.

Several newspapers, however, also published her photograph prominently.

We decided not to do so because she is a minor, a witness below the age of 18.

This is a decision that some readers noticed and applauded.

India’s Juvenile Justice Act explicitly states that the identities of children who are victims should not be revealed.

But decisions about revealing the identities of child witnesses and defendants are not bound by lawand are usually the result of editorial judgements (or the lack thereof).

The logic for not revealing identities of children involved in the justice process is the same as that for not revealing the name of women rape victims: identifying them makes it that much harder for them to function normally in society again.

Child witnesses might also be exposed to intimidation. Indeed, the girl who identified Kasab is obviously already rather frightened.

One newspaper reported that she walked in to the court “looking petrified” yet it went on to publish several other details about her, including where she and her father lived.

I believe that unless it is overwhelmingly in the public interest to reveal the names of the children and other vulnerable groups, we should not.

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s guidelines about children involved in the judicial process pretty much express what responsible journalists ought to do:

“We must make very careful judgements about revealing their name, address, identity of school or other educational establishment, place of work, or any still or moving picture of them.

A public interest or clear editorial justification is also required for the broadcast of such material related to the identity of anyone under 18 who is involved as a potential defendant.”

It is possible to report in detail about children and women victims without revealing their names.

For years, the US press reported on the rape of a woman in New York city’s Central Park by referring to her merely as “the Central Park jogger.”

The woman later chose to reveal her identity by writing a book that she hoped would help other women survive such a trauma, but that was on her own terms and only when she was ready to do so.

But admittedly, we have not always been restrained when it comes to minors.

In September last year, we published the photo of a child who had witnessed a bomb explosion. This could have put him in considerable danger.

He was a poor balloon seller who had seen two men drop a package in a dustbin, which later exploded.

One TV channel had even irresponsibly reported that the boy was a suicide bomber.

We live and learn.