Failing to do justice to the complexity of rape

BY PRACHI BHAGWAT| IN Media Monitoring | 06/08/2017
Part II--By giving rape routine treatment, newspapers hinder a wider debate on prevention and hold back on the understanding of how popular culture and power structures contribute.
PRACHI BHAGWAT says media misses the 'why' of rape.


The focus of a majority of reports was presenting a description of the crime. This included the ‘Where’, ‘What’, ‘Who’, ‘When’, and ‘How’ of the crime. In some instances the reports were replete with detail that was irrelevant to why the crime took place and it is precisely that question – why - that the reports circumvent.


I a. Crime-specific reporting

A news report may not be able to get into structural reasons each time but perhaps a quote from an expert on sexual violence may bring a focus on the larger issue at hand rather than concentrating on detail that simply generates fear. If not a quote, a history of the incidents of sexual violence in the area where the crime has taken place may bring forth a pattern that needs to be taken into account in order to deal with the problem.  

Even in the event that all of  the above is impossible and that the report must indeed simply report the crime, the addition of details such as what the victim was doing prior to the crime, where she hails from or details of her occupation must be left out of the report.

Take for example this report in the Times of India which, by providing unnecessary detail, indirectly indulges in victim blaming. A complete breakdown of another report in the Times of India and its irresponsible reporting has been recorded and commented upon by Manisha Pande in her article for Newslaundry.

What is especially flawed with the act of circumventing that question is not that the answer is simply lost but that the absence of the why of rape implies that rape simply happens out of the blue and that we, as individuals, ought to find a way to deal with it.

Invariably, the consequence of the prevalence of this discourse is an increase in surveillance of women, their bodies, and restrictions on their movement, all in the name of safety.  Responding to the growing number of ‘women’s safety apps’ in the aftermath of the December 2016 Delhi gang-rape, feminist writer Sameera Khan was quoted in an article in the Guardian saying:

“The plethora of tech-based solutions seem to assume that women don’t do anything for their safety, when in reality, without any assured state or institutional support, women and girls are always strategizing and producing safety for themselves in a multitude of ways.”

The question which arises then is that, is simply reporting or gathering information on rape counterproductive towards generating constructive public discourse on prevention strategies and raising awareness of the nature of the crime ?

A protection specialist currently working in South Sudan, Caelin Briggs, thinks in the affirmative, as is evident in the argument she presents in an article for the Guardian. Referring to the theory that the act of abstaining from reporting crimes involving sexual violence is a complicit one and that it is imperative that reports be written, she writes that, “making reporting mandatory, regardless of the rationale, is simply counterproductive when it comes to cases involving sexual violence.”

She substantiates her argument by stating that reports that contain salacious detail and not much else have the potential to bring back the trauma suffered by the victim.


I b . Case specific reporting 

These reports, although going beyond just stating details of the incident, were confined to tracking police investigations and the progress of court cases. The reports dealt with the justice processes that are underway in the aftermath of the crime. Moreover, some of the cases under this category were not exempt from providing gruesome detail of the crime which formed the central feature of reports that have been categorised as crime-specific.

In view of the limited nature of these reports, centered on reporting about the criminal justice system, there is little room for exploring the ‘why’ of rape. Instead the focus remains on how to deal with rape once it occurs.

Nancy Fraser, in a paper titled From Politics of Redistribution to Politics of Recognition: Dilemmas of Justice in a Post-Socialist World, distinguishes between affirmative and transformative strategies to combat societal inequality. Affirmative strategies deal with the consequences of the problem. In this case, rape is simply the consequence of an existing imbalance of power in society. Transformative strategies on the other hand, address the problem itself, which in this case would be addressing the disproportionate distribution of power on the basis of gender.

All the reports in the sample document the affirmative strategies undertaken to deal with rape, while the broader questions of how a patriarchal order is maintained are ignored even in articles for which a specific case did not serve as a hook.


I c. Articles that appeared independent of the occurrence of a particular case.




Judicial Milestone

Manipur: SC Calls for SIT to probe rape charge against soldiers




Bombay High Court asks Government if it has any policy on kids born to rape victims


Violation of Supreme Court guideline by Delhi Police in filing FIRs

Delhi Police rapped for revealing identity of victims of sexual violence



Victim Compensation Scheme: Disposal of cases moving at a snail's pace since launch in 2013


Policy based content

Maharashtra Government may hike compensation for sexual assault victims to Rs. 10 lakh


Rate of rape cases reported in Jaipur

Jaipur sees major dip in number of rape cases


Ethics for mental health professionals

Kerala Rape Horror: Persons in authority should be ethical


Statement by judges in response to a PIL filed to oppose legal status of marital rape

Marital Rape is a serious issue:High Court


Politician on rape prevention

Kerala Minister says farming could prevent rape


The articles in this category constituted a broader canvas, unlike those in the former categories. This format provided the reader with important information. For instance, the article numbered 3 in the above column, informs the reader about a city court rebuking the Delhi police for naming victims of sexual assault in the FIRs filed by them, a practice that is unlawful according to Supreme Court guidelines. It describes the interaction between two important public institutions, namely the judiciary and the police.

However, here too, 7 out of a total of 9 articles dealt with different aspects of justice after the crime has taken place. This brings us to the question of how the media framed solutions to the issue of rape. The room to address solutions to the crises, as it were, was only available in this category - commentary on rape without any one case serving as a hook for the article.

All the articles in this category follow the theme of damage control  interventions to deal with the crime that has taken place. None of the reports provide insight into preventive measures that need to be taken at a structural level, such as how popular culture perpetuates rape myths or what needs be incorporated in our curriculum to educate children about power structures.

The only article with prevention as the theme had all the wrong things to say. It simply reproduced statements made in a speech by a minister from Kerala without examining their absolutely baseless claims. The minister described the sexual violence problem as an issue of ‘self-control’, and claimed that an increase in farming would distract men from perpetrating sexual violence.


II. The identification of the perpetrator was very high. The details, however, make the victim vulnerable to identification.


Reports that provided details of and named the perpetrator in such a manner that made the identity of the victim sufficiently evident.





70/ 216

*207= Total number of reports (216) - Reports that appeared without any particular case serving as a hook (9) 



Section 228A of I.P.C. makes disclosure of the identity of victims of certain offences punishable. Printing or publishing of any matter which may make known the identity of any person against whom an offence under section 376, 376A, 376B, 376C or 376D is alleged or found to have been committed can be punished.

The restriction does not relate to printing or publication of judgments by a High Court or the Supreme Court. But in view of the social object of preventing social victimization or ostracism of the victim of a sexual offence for which section 228A has been enacted, it would be appropriate that in the judgments, be it of the Supreme Court, High Court or lower court, the name of the victim should not be indicated; State of Punjab v. Ramdev Singh, AIR 2004 SC 1290.

And yet, the information provided in 32.4% of reports make the identity of the victim sufficiently evident. The chances of this happening are especially high in cases in which the victim was abused by a family member and the report stated the name and location of the perpetrator.

A recent article in The Wire reported how the law mentioned above is broken at every level of the criminal justice system. Quoting a study titled Rahat conducted by NGO Majlis, the article states that out of a total of 600 victims that were surveyed over a span of three years, the victim’s name appeared in court judgements in 36% of cases, even though such a practice is outlawed according to the Supreme Court’s guidelines.

The article went on to show the various levels at which the law is broken, from the media to irresponsible government officials giving out names of victims brazenly. One of the reports in the sample of our study reported on the Delhi High Court reprimanding the Delhi Police for naming rape victims while filing FIRs, another practice that goes against the guidelines.


III. Who speaks to the reader in the reports?

Most reports featured quotes from police officials or recorded statements made by lawyers and judges in court. Here too, the criminal justice system speaks to us and the discourse is limited to damage control rather than prevention.

Not a single report featured a quote from an academic in spite of the ever-growing body of scholarship being produced on understanding sexual violence and the social structures that perpetuate it. A recently published series by Zubaan books on sexual violence and impunity in South Asia documents the structural failures of the criminal justice system and discusses various facets of why sexual violence is perpetrated in the South Asian context.


IV. Lack of interrogation and critical rebuttal by reporters.

Apart from quoting criminal justice officials and politicians verbatim, the reports did not critically comment on the statements made. Take for example a report recording statements made by a judge in the final hearing of the Nirbhaya case which described the rape in the following words: “human lust was allowed to take such a demonic form.” The statement attributes the cause of the rape to lust, a commonplace understanding of rape which diverts attention from the fact that rape is simply an assertion of power and has little to do with lust or sexual attraction. 

Laxmi Murthy, in an article for Himal Southasian breaks down this aspect of rape by quoting psychiatrist Ruth Steifart who in her study on sexual violence during World War II defined rape not as an aggressive manifestation of sexuality but as a sexual manifestation of aggression.

A report in the Hindu replicated politician Azam Khan’s statements that attributed the molestation case at Rampur, the footage of which was uploaded on social media, to the election of the BJP in the state. Furthermore, the comment he made suggesting that  “...For the safety of [one’s] prestige, [one must] keep [their] daughters inside the houses under strict vigil,” was also simply quoted verbatim without any critical rebuttal from the reporter’s end.

While reporters are not expected to editorialise in new reports, a quote or two from an expert on sexual violence in response to the minister’s obviously irresponsible comments would prevent the statements from being taken seriously. This is especially important since the statements  stem from a commonplace understanding that the way to deal with rape is to protect women from rapists, rather than introspect about the societal norms that produce a rapist.

Similar treatment was given to a report that quoted a speech made by a politician from Kerala in which he claimed (as mentioned earlier in this article) that farming would distract men from committing rape.

Instead of playing the role of a watchdog of public institutions and monitoring their functioning or lapses, reporters simply do the job of relaying information provided to them, no questions asked.


IV. Comparison between Newspapers


No. of crime-specific reports


Case specific reports that went beyond the incident


Commentary on sexual violence


Victim was likely to be identified


No. of cases that were followed up



The Hindu













83 / 112











Indian Express

36 /76











a. The Times of India contained the maximum proportion of crime-specific reports while the Hindu and the Indian Express carried more reports that went beyond simply providing facts about the crime.

b. The Hindu carried the highest proportion of reports that provided details about the accused that made the victim vulnerable to identification.

c. All the three newspapers displayed an abysmal lack of follow-up articles.


V. A miniscule number of reports were followed up with additional reports, tracking the case that had occurred.


No. of follow-up articles


Possible reason for follow up


December 2012, Delhi gangrape (Nirbhaya)



The Hindu

Widely covered at the time of occurrence. The case was in the news owing to the announcement of the final court judgement.


2017, Deoband Cleric accused of rape.


The Times of India

The accused is the brother of the head of a prominent Islamic organisation.


2017, Rape charges filed against UP Minister Gayatri Prajapati


The Indian Express

The accused is a prominent politician in Uttar Pradesh


2017, Rohtak rape case


The Hindu

Brutal rape.

Took place in Haryana


2002, post-Godhra riots Bilkis Bano rape case


The Hindu

The case took place during the 2002 post-Godhra riots and has been in the news ever since


2017, Bulandshahr-Jewar highway rape case


The Indian Express

Took place in UP soon after state elections


2009 Pune Nayana Pujari rape case


The Hindu

The case garnered headlines when it took place and was in the news owing to the final judgement being announced at the time.


2017, Rampur molestation case


The Hindu, The Indian Express

The footage of the case made its presence felt on social media


2012, Bangalore, French Diplomat Pascal Mazurier acquitted of rape charges


The Indian Express


Accused is a former French diplomat to India



2017, Ludhiana minor rape case


The Indian Express




2017, Nashik, Mumbai constable held for raping minor


The Indian Express


Perpetrator is a police constable


2017, Mallampuram German tourist raped


The Indian Express


Victim was a foreign tourist


2017, Bowenpally minor rape case


The Times of India



2017, Aurangabad, head constable held for minor’s rape.


The Times of India

Perpetrator is a police constable


Three out of the above-listed cases may have received relatively greater attention due to the high-profile status of the persons involved in the case. These three include the case involving Gayatri Prajapati, a prominent politician from Uttar Pradesh who belongs to the Samajwadi Party; Maulana Masood Madani, brother of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind general secretary; and Pascal Mazurier, a former French diplomat to India.

The 2012 Delhi rape case, the 2002 Post-Godhra rape case of Bilkis Bano, as well as the rape case of IT employee Nayana Pujari that took place in Pune, had been widely covered at the time. During the time period of the study, the courts were scheduled to deliver a final judgement for those convicted in each case. As a result, the court cases were tracked in the news reports.

The other cases that were followed-up with reports were not especially distinct from the others and so the following points simply involve guesswork  on my part about what could possibly have been reasons for an interest in these cases that resulted in them being followed-up.

A possible reason for the coverage received by the rape case that took place on the Bulandshahr - Jewar highway and the case of molestation in Rampur - the footage of which was uploaded on social media till the police took action - could be that these cases took place in Uttar Pradesh where a newly elected government had made tall claims about public safety for women.

The rape case in Rohtak, apart from being extremely brutal, may have been deemed newsworthy due to the fact that it took place in Haryana, a state where gender inequality is known to be among the worst in the country.

The perpetrators in two cases were police constables which may have been a reason for why those cases were considered newsworthy. 

Finally, the rape of the German tourist in Tamil Nadu may have found its way to the newspaper due to the fact that safety for female tourists in India is an oft-discussed issue. Moreover, another German tourist had reported a rape in the same area within days of this case occurring.

That being said, the large numbers of crimes of sexual violence that are reported make it impossible for all of them to be followed-up. However, if simply reporting these cases is counterproductive as discussed in an earlier section, the print media needs to rethink its approach to reporting crimes of sexual violence in addition to drawing up new and stricter guidelines for reporters.

Mary John, while speaking on sexual violence, in a public lecture, stated that while there has been some insight on the issue, accompanying the insight is also some blindness. The way that rape and sexual violence is reported is representative of this dilemma. The issue has gained significance and the reports have multiplied as a result, but there also appears to be some confusion along the way. The reportage does not seem to follow any preset guidelines. Moreover, many reports actually go against guidelines such as the ones that protect the victim’s identity.

While this inadequacy is a reflection of the way in which sexual violence is dealt with various levels in society, newspapers and the media at large can play a corrective role and lead the way in generating constructive public discourse on the causes of rape and preventive measures that ought to be taken by society as a whole, rather than promoting the idea that rape needs to be tackled at the level of the individual.

This series is an attempt towards beginning a discussion about how a framework can be worked out that will help check the inadequacies of reportage on rape and, by extension, steer the debate on sexual violence and its prevention in a more constructive direction.


Raw data on which this study is based.


PART 1 -  Where media reports on rape fail


Prachi Bhagwat studies Modern Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.  



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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