On Monday, Tamil Nadu woke up to the shocking news of sexual harassment allegations by a senior woman police officer against an Inspector General rank officer in the state police department. Days after a formal complaint was lodged by the woman police officer, the state government constituted an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in accordance with the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
However, soon after news broke of the incident, the narrative surrounding the high profile case fuelled speculation on social media regarding the identity of the survivor. Many media houses had given suggestive details in their news reports of the complaint as well as the case, hinting at who the survivor may be.
In their eagerness to protest the unfairness of how the survivor was being treated after the matter came to light, several social media accounts with large numbers of followers ended up inadvertently outing the identity of the woman officer.
Since shaming still happens, naming ought not to be done
Speaking to TNM, senior advocate and activist Sudha Ramalingam calls for self-regulation and self-censorship, especially when it comes to suggestive news reportage.
“There needs to self-censorship. People think a media house is the best because they get all the inside information. Print and visual media fall prey to the rush of giving out the news first because there is high competition. If one channel or newspaper has it, then the rest of them also carry it because otherwise it would amount to a loss of viewership or readership. And privacy of people is intruded because of this,” she says.
She also points out that the tone of covering such an issue has to be sensitive. “In some weeklies and magazines, such news is provided as if it is gossip. It is all very explicit but the channel or newspaper can say that they haven’t named the persons involved. They can claim that they are legally not in the wrong. That’s why there should be self-regulation and self-censorship. If the shaming of the victim is not there, then naming will not be a problem. It is only because shaming is still there, the naming ought not to be done.”
Deterring other survivors coming forward?
Senior journalist Kavitha Muralidharan points out that when it comes to not outing the identity of the survivor, a case like Nirbhaya’s was an exception, rather than the rule.
As she wrote for TNM in 2015 on the difference between two cases of rape that took place within four days of each other, “When the Delhi rape victim was called Nirbhaya – the fearless one, the Sri Vaikundam rape victim had her name splashed across in almost all the media in Tamil Nadu. While the image of Nirbhaya still remains a testimony to the fiercely guarded ethics of journalism, the media in Tamil Nadu was generously publishing the images of the Sri Vaikundam rape victim as a dead body with her tattered clothes on.”
However, Kavitha points out that while young journalists are far more sensitised to these issues, they are not always in powerful, decision-making positions in the newsroom.
“We should be conscious. We need to be more sensitive and keep the dialogue open as to why it is not fair to do so. As such there is social stigma on those who come forward to complain against sexual harassment. Even at the workplace they are identified as troublemakers. So it makes it difficult for them. And without support from the media, it is going to be worse for them. Media needs to make sure that women are encouraged to come forward with their complaints. They should go beyond reporting and look at it sensitively,” she says.