Media Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse

By Bhumika Sahani

Upholding the principles of its role as the fourth pillar of democracy, the media has a responsibility to bring the issue of child sexual abuse into the realm of public debate. It is integral that the issue gets highlighted, is given due attention and recognized by masses as a gruesome offence against children.

Albeit the responsibility bestowed upon the media, it is saddening to see the sensationalisation that the media at large is engaging in instead of sensitive reporting, as is expected of it.

Let us look at some of the headlines from reports that have come out in the print media in the recent past.

Girl ‘raped’ by youth in Thane
11 year old rape victim gives birth to child
6 year old girl raped in crèche, owner’s husband booked
Eighteen-month-old child raped by her uncle in Uttar Pradesh
4-year-old ‘raped’, left bleeding on street
Nine-year-old critical after rape, undergoes surgeries

The news stories go on to talk about the details of the incident and at times even divulge personal details of the child and the family, in complete violation of the principles of confidentiality under the POCSO Act, 2012 and the JJ Act. These stories do little to bring the perpetrator to light, instead placing the onus of the abuse on the child, the result of which is victim-shaming.

The articles are also in contradiction of the guidelines given by National Human Rights Commission and National Commission for Protection of Child Rights stating how media should report on the issue of child sexual abuse. The guidelines explicitly specify that under no circumstances should the identity of the child be disclosed. The reporter should uphold the principle of confidentiality so as to not put the child and the family under further emotional and mental distress.

The guidelines also explain how the media must guard the rights of children as guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially the principle of best interest when reporting on such issues.

The media, it appears, also suffers from an ‘adultist culture’ – the power adults have over children – wherein a child related issue is viewed from the eyes of an adult and reported from that position of power pointing towards an unequal power relations between children and adults. News media portray children in limited roles as objects of emotional appeal, victims or performers. Whereas what one needs is to respect child’s right to participation and right to expression for matters that concern them. What is needed is for them to pass the mic and let the voices of children be heard.

It is in light of these principles (as charted and guaranteed in United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child), that the newspaper ‘Balaknama’ needs to be viewed. Balaknama is an outcome of neglect and injustice to street and working children across the world. “When children did not find space among adults, they decided to pen down their issues and glories, an attempt to change people’s perception and ensuring identity, dignity, and participation of street children,” says their website.

What is worth mentioning is how the newspaper has given the space to children to voice their experiences and not remain mere passive entities, while ensuring that their anonymity is maintained.

Following is a paragraph from their report on child sexual abuse that was published in the May-June, 2018 issue, titled “Next Door Neighbour Abusing Girl” –

Sharing her own story, the innocent girl said,

There is a man who lives on the same floor, where we live. He always tries to harass me. He, first greed me buy showing toffees or chocolates and then pull me up and try to touch my private body parts. Not only this, at night when all of us are sleeping, he cuts our cloths, which are hanging outside for drying, from the area of private parts. Everyone hates that person but our landlord does not throw him out of the building. Due to this only I am living a fearful life and afraid of getting out of my home.” She knows about the child helpline number but when she tries to talk to them and share her problem with the child helpline, her parents won’t support her. “Not only this, my family members don’t allow for police complaints too as they are afraid that, that person will hurt me or any other family member.

The paper goes on to document various other instances of sexual abuse that the children go through where they have been made to watch pornography, threatened into undressing and blackmailed into having sexual relationship with the perpetrator. The editorial urges the stakeholders in child safety, like police officers and administrators, to take action.

What the children have been able to achieve through a newspaper run by them, is a shift of focus from the child as a victim to the act as an offence. Through the accounts of many children, the report also brings into sharp focus the unfortunate every day and normalized nature of the offence. Also, giving abuse survivors the opportunity to speak out about their experiences might encourage others in a similar situation to ask for help.

There are lessons aplenty that the media houses can learn from initiatives like Balaknama. It is about time they reassess their approach towards reporting on issues concerning children, especially child sexual abuse.

While reporting sexual abuse, the media needs to keep in mind the best interest of the child, namely:-

  • Highlight the perpetrator his/her demography, background, brutality of his/her act rather than the demographics of the victim
  • Bring blame and shame towards the perpetrator rather than highlight the stigmatization of the child who was abused.
  • When reporting on sexual violence against children also report on the steps taken by the authorities to address and prevent such incidents; as well as the responsibility of adult citizens in intervening and preventing abuse.
  • Simultaneously run programs that highlight the fact that ensuring the safety and dignity of children is the responsibility of adults, as well as help adults learn how to teach Personal Safety to small children without instilling fear or distrust of adults.
  • Follow up the case/s intermittently until the trial is completed.
  • Clear guidelines for media have been provided in the Bal Suraksha app, download it from the google playstore for free.

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