Although Section 14 of the Prevention of Women and Children Repression Act 2000 restricts the publication of the identity of certain crime victims, very few newsagents abide by it. The section specifically prohibits the publication of information related to the case or name and address or 'any other information' that may reveal the identity of the victims of women and child-related offences. The 'any other information' can be widely interpreted to include photographs, educational background, or any pseudonym that is closely connected to the victim's original name. Image blurring alteration to the photograph in such a way that facial or physical features cannot be recognised or fake names that do not match the original may fall outside the scope of the section.
In the aftermath of a recent rape and murder case in Dhaka, mainstream media, especially online news platforms published photographs of the victim without blurring it. While few national dailies conveniently got away with it, online news portals went one step ahead in publishing distasteful headlines along with clear photographs of the victim. Contrary to previous instances, a pseudonym was used in place of the original name but publishing the victim's photograph invalidated such efforts.
A well-known online news portal published a report that suggested that the victim had consented to what happened to her. Moments after it was posted on their Facebook page, hate comments started to pour in, mostly blaming the victim's parents for 'not raising her right'. Commenters started finding their reasons to blame the victim for the rape. Other comments pointed at her 'English Medium' background and choice of clothing.
The post was shared over three thousand times all over Facebook. Another website, jumping on the bandwagon, published a piece of news with a much explicit title along with the picture of the victim, the defendant, and an empty bed (presumably as an insinuation).
As disturbing as it may sound, some titles actually suggested that the victim herself is to blame for this and she 'did it in the persuasion of her own sexual fantasies'. What is more alarming is that the majority of these titles are sexist and derogatory.
Publishing photographs or misleading news reports regarding a victim of women and the child-related offences is a direct violation of the above-mentioned law. Be it a survivor or deceased, revealing identity in such form exposes a rape victim to further victimization and victim-blaming. In both situations, their families suffer the most being constantly reminded of that fateful incident. News reports like these incite rape culture and gender violence.
The very medium that should safeguard the interests of a crime victim is now lashing upon them. All this is for generating easy revenue every time someone visits their site and clicks on the ads running all over the pages.
Most online news portal owners do not even have any experience or educational qualifications in journalism. Many of these websites are not registered as per the existing law.
They buy cheap domain hosting, build a webpage with a free template and start calling it a news website. Their work is simple; generate traffic by dragging visitors to their site using catchy titles, featured images, and videos. Google's 'Adsense' facility allows websites to earn a certain incentive whenever a user clicks on the ads on their page.
The media, including those operating online, are under constant obligation to adhere to their ethical code. According to Section 11(2)(b) of the Press Council Act 1974, the press council must create a code of conduct for newspapers and news agencies, and journalists in accordance with high professional standards. Not maintaining the anonymity of a rape victim by any newspaper or news website is unethical and violates the above-mentioned section.
According to Section 12 (1) of the 1974 Act, on receipt of a complaint that a newspaper or news agency has offended against the standard or journalistic ethics or public taste, the press council may hold an inquiry in such manner provided in the Act and if satisfied, warn, admonish or censure the newspaper or news agency and record the reasons in writing.
Online news portals may fall under the definition of 'news-sheets' which refer to any document other than newspapers containing public news or comments on public news. Section 21 (1) of The Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973 states that the District Magistrate may, by order in writing and subject to such condition as he may think fit to impose, authorize any person by name to publish a news-sheet or to publish news-sheets from time to time.
News websites not authorised by the District Magistrate shall be deemed unauthorized by the Act. Section 33 (1) of the Act states that whoever makes, prints or otherwise produces, distributes, publishes or publicity exhibits or keeps for sale, distribution or publication, any unauthorized news-sheet or unauthorised newspaper, shall be punishable with fine not exceeding Taka 20 thousand (twenty thousand).
The recent law governing the online news portals, namely, the National Online Mass media Policy 2017 (Amended 2020) specifically requires online news portals to be registered, except those that were previously registered under the Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973. If a proper investigation is conducted on such news websites, a majority of them will be found to have no registration at all.
Clause 2.1.1 of the National Online Mass media Policy 2017 (Amended 2020) states that every online mass media must be registered under the commission, but until the commission has been formed, the government or any government-affiliated institution shall perform the registration functions.
Clause 2.1.2 of the policy states, every online mass media must be registered under the guidelines related to the required educational qualification, experience, and financial stability of the journalists as well as its editor.
Clause 3.1.1 of the policy states that the commission will monitor whether its rules and guidelines are being properly abided by or not. Clause 3.1.4 of the policy states that the commission, upon any specific complaint regarding the publication of unsuitable news or violation of its guidelines or on its own motion, may make recommendations to the Government to penalize, file a suit or if required, take further legal steps against the related online mass media while giving them an opportunity of being heard.
Online news portals can be considered as a form of broadcast journalism as they publish the latest news containing multimedia, sometimes even more prompt than television or radio. The National Broadcast Policy 2014 has also acknowledged how online newspapers have gained popularity and how the youth are influenced by them. Clause 1.3.7 states that the main aspect of the policy is to help establish discipline in the society and prevent moral degradation. Making news reports with explicit titles and photographs of the victim not only promotes moral degradation but also fails to restore discipline in the society.
Safeguarding the identity of rape victims is of paramount importance in India. It was first felt in the case of 'Nirbhaya', a pseudonym used by the media to protect the victim's identity. Such an act of professionalism became an example of ethical journalism not only in India but globally.
Recently, in the Indian case of Nipun Saxena & Anr. Vs. Union Of India Ministry Of Home Affairs & Ors, the Supreme Court of India ruled 'Whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make the identity of any person known against whom an offence under section 376, section 376A, section 376B, section 376C, or section 376D is alleged or found to have been committed, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.'
Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh Mahmudul Islam in his book 'Constitutional Law of Bangladesh' states 'The press is not immune from the application of the general laws that reach equally to all businessmen. The protective cover of press freedom cannot be thrown open for wrongdoings. Article 39 will not be attracted if a newspaper publishes what is mischievously false or illegal or abuses its liberty.' The constitution guarantees freedom of the press under Article 39, but such freedom must not curtail a citizen's right to personal liberty also protected by the Constitution.
The media plays a pivotal role in maintaining a balance in society. Thus, presenting responsible news becomes their primary duty. The unprecedented initiative of the media in the recent rape and murder case in Dhaka in using the pseudonym of the victim is appreciable but the use of her picture could have been avoided. The media has to ensure that the victim's rights are safeguarded. They must publish news with due care as a slight recklessness can have a huge impact on the lives of many.
They believe specifics such as names or photographs add credibility to their story. But such kind of activity portrays unprofessionalism and ignorance of their ethical obligations. Online news websites must be more cautious regarding the tone of their content and ensure censorship of certain reports.
Barrister Aiman R Khan is an associate Advocate at Rahman Law Associates and Company
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.