The responsibility of the public and media on handling sensitive information and laws on its circulation

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The egregious incident of Machong has made us reaffirm that crime and offences have no boundaries; the way we perceive Sikkim to be a utopian state was once again put into doubt. This brutal incident is not the first one to occur in the state, but given the gravity of the crime committed – it was inhuman. Add to this, the proliferation of information about the offence on social media making sensitive information handily accessible to all. Given the accessibility of the information, we need to exercise certain responsibilities for handling this. The opinion that shapes our thought process for any incident is through the prima facie information we get. So, if the information that we first get is itself misinformed, then for sure we are going nowhere.

At the outset, the police team who investigated the matter deserve accolades for their investigation and successful nabbing of an accused person at the earliest. Now, it is a matter of the trial to ascertain and establish the particular nature of offence the deceased victim was subjected to. But the way the information has been circulated on the social media pages and its afterthought doesn’t seem to be credible.  

The reason behind the meticulous observation on this particular aspect is that it has a direct bearing in the way these reports are published. In view of the Supreme Court judgment of 2018 in Nipun Saxena’s case, we need to take extra precautions while dealing with such sensitive cases because someone else’s dignity and life are at stake. As the murderer destroys the physical body of the victim, the same way the rapist degrades the soul of the victim. So, if social media users and the media reveal the identity of the victim, then the victim will face hostile behaviour and social ostracisation at any given point of time in future.

The ugly perception

Being the victim of a sexual offence is itself an uncalled punishment. Sometimes the fear of social ostracization will prevent the victim of a sexual offence to report the case and in some other circumstances, if a victim is a young girl who has been dating a boy, she is irked often by the society who question her character. The victim’s first brush with justice is an unpleasant one where she is made to feel that she is at fault and the ugliest among all is that sometimes the matter of sexual offence being non-compoundable is made to compromise between the accused and the victim either by the police officials or by the village groups. 

Media reports and their impact

Not long ago, the curious case of Saravjeet Singh surfaced in media, where he was accused of sexually assaulting women in Delhi’s traffic. Social media trail labelled him as a criminal but ultimately he found respite to the accusation when the Court acquitted him from all charges on the ground that the complainant’s testimony had no substance. But by the time he was acquitted, there was already damage to his character and the unknown society had already painted a narcissistic picture of him.

Another disservice done was with the Kathua Rape victim when disgruntled social media users and some national media disclosed the victim’s name and photographs were widely shared on social media. Ultimately, the Delhi High Court had to pass an order restraining all to refrain from sharing the photographs and imposed a cost of 1 lakh each against those national media houses who shared them. Netizens and the media need to introspect both these instances of utmost public importance and restrain ourselves when such situation unfolds.

Machong’s case and its reporting with relevance to Nipun Saxena’s case

So, generally, Nipun Saxena’s judgment of 2018 deals with the protection of the identity of adult victims of rape and children who are subjected to rape and sexual offence. Anyone publishing such information needs to refrain from revealing not just the name of the victim but also any fact that may lead the victim to be identified through her area of residence, school or any other means. 

In the present case, as the prima-facie investigation and post mortem report didn’t reveal that it was a rape, the judgment may not attract, but we should still avoid revealing the identity of the deceased victim till the charge sheet is filed before the court of law.

If it may have been any other sexual offence case, even the police officer according to Nipun Saxena’s judgment is not expected to reveal the victim’s name – not just to media but also to the public. 

Among other guidelines, three important and relevant ones of the Supreme Court in Nipun Saxena’s case is reproduced below:

1. No person can print or publish in print, electronic, social media, etc. the name of the victim or even in a remote manner disclose any facts which can lead to the victim being identified and which should make her identity known to the public at large

2. In cases where the victim is dead or of unsound mind the name of the victim or her identity should not be disclosed even under the authorization of the next of the kin, unless circumstances justifying the disclosure of her identity exist, which shall be decided by the competent authority, which at present is the Sessions Judge.

3. The police officials should keep all the documents in which the name of the victim is disclosed, as far as possible, in a sealed cover and replace these documents by identical documents in which the name of the victim is removed in all records which may be scrutinized in the public domain.

Besides many judgments and laws, we as netizens and social media users also need to be evolved, primarily when it comes to handling sensitive information. The law will take its course in accordance with the criminal jurisprudence and punish the perpetrators. On the other hand, civil society needs to be vigilant in order to facilitate the ethics of society. No matter where we are and what we do, it is our place that defines us on who we are.

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