Reporting On Sexual Violence

Some Do's And Don'ts


Umesh Pokharel

In one of its cover stories, a weekly magazine, while reporting on ‘sexual harassment in the film industry, not only went to reveal the name of a sexual harassment survivor but also failed to write the perpetrator’s name. 

In one of the cases thus reported, the writer mentioned the name of an actress and revealed that she received an offer to provide sexual favor to be able to get a role in a film. The writer however remains mum about the perpetrator. 

In February 2022, media ranging from online to print revealed the name of a rape survivor and published her photographs and other details in a case where one of the actors in the Nepali film, Paul Shah (Purna Bikram Shah), was accused. 

After voices were raised that the media had failed to maintain the confidentiality of the rape victim, the media corrected its ways of dealing with the issue in later days.

In May 2022, a girl, a former beauty pageant participant, accused that she was repeatedly raped by Manoj Pandey of Model Global Visas Consultancy, one of the beauty pageant organizers. YouTube and online news- portals posted photos, videos, and detailed information about the young lady, failing to keep the negative repercussion of such news- items in mind.  

In August 2022, a few online media and a female celebrity released videos and photos showing the relationship of rape survivors with a perpetrator. 
The examples presented above indicate something about the sensitivity of the media while ‘covering gender-based and sexual violence. 

Media coverage of sexual violence is characterized by a lack of sensitivity, unnecessary sensationalization, inappropriate use of words and illustrations, and stereotypical and male bias. 

Also, journalists’ insensitive behavior toward the survivors during field interviews and publishing photographs, videos, names and other details of the survivors is something we frequently come across in the news- media.

Further, in most of the news- reports, the voice of the survivor remains absent. Survivors are presented as helpless, not as dignified humans and no context of the story is found to be given. The media also pay more attention to false allegations rather than facts. That is why media are seen inaccurately presenting sexual violence as 'date rape', and 'false memory syndrome' among others.  

Why do the media fail to report the issues of sexual violence more sensitively? The lack of formal editorial guidelines to cover sexual and gender violence is the first thing. Most of the media houses in Nepal don't have formal and well-written editorial guidelines to deal with ‘Gendered and Sexual Violence. 

Yes, there are some informal guidelines, but the guidelines are just verbal and not mandatorily followed. Thus, decisions about the presentation, use of language, framing, and sketches among others are left solely to reporters.

Also, in the name of journalism being ‘literature in a hurry, the newsroom doesn't discuss much the framing and presentation of the sexual and gender violence news. Also, they don’t allow time to reflect on the impact of the news they did. 

A second challenge is the lack of understanding and knowledge of journalists about gender and sexual violence issues.  Many Nepali media have assigned women, journalists, to cover the issues of sexual and gender violence, which is praiseworthy. However, there is no significant improvement in the way sexual and gender-based violence news is being framed and presented. 

Another issue affecting the 'coverage of sexual violence is the lack of sensitivity of the journalists. The majority of survivors don't like to talk to journalists because they don't feel comfortable talking with them. Survivors particularly don't like the way journalists frame questions. It triggers survivors' trauma.  Also, survivors are not sure how they will be presented in the media. 

Organizations that are providing shelter and other sorts of support to the survivors are also hesitant to connect the survivors to the journalists. Such organizations also can’t trust journalists because of the insensitive language they use, sensationalization, inaccurate portrayal, and lack of confidentiality. 

I recall National Women Commission (NWC), a statutory body mandated to protect and promote the rights of women, not willing to connect journalists to survivors fearing wrong portrayal and inaccurate framing. 

It is equally important to note that ‘sexual and gender-based violence is perceived as a commodity by the news- media, which they can sell and earn money.  It is more so for YouTubers. Sexual and gender-based violence is still a 'good copy' for the newsroom. 

They want to sell content in a way that appeals to the audience to consume massively.  Also, the media pay more attention to false allegations than the well-proven facts about sexual violence because gossip and suspicion sell well.

That is why we see competition among media houses to give sensational headlines, cover victim blaming, and publish photographs, videos, and other details.

Now the question may arise, have not we transformed in terms of sensitivity to covering sexual and gender-based violence? 

The answer is 'yes but to some extent.  First, Nepali media have accorded priority to gender and sexual violence stories; they have started assigning female journalists to cover such incidents. Also, media houses have realized the need of having a guideline to cover sexual and gender-based violence. Further, in recent days, a level of effort is seen from the media houses not to reveal the identity of the survivors. However, media are yet to do much in maintaining sensitivity in information collection, framing, production and dissemination. 

Way Forward 

In order to be able to maintain sensitivity while covering sexual and gender-based violence, some guidelines may help. International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)  issued 10 points guidelines advising journalists to use accurate, non-judgmental language, avoid using the word ‘ victim' unless they term 'victim' themselves, and avoid sexual violence survivors from being further abused.

It further asks to treat survivors with respect, give a bigger picture to tell the whole story, maintain confidentiality, and respect local culture among others.

Journalist Code of Conduct, 2073 (2016) (Amended 2076 (2019)) enforced by the Press Council of Nepal with the consent of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists ( FNJ) asks journalists and mass media not to produce, publish, broadcast, and distribute material that adversely affects the survivor or victim of the sexual crime. It further advises not to disclose the name, address, and identity of a survivor or the complainer without receiving consent.

The code of ethics also asks not to publish or broadcast horrible, nude pictures and scenes including that of rape. Similarly, Dart Center's guideline entitled 'reporting on sexual violence' advises special care and ethical sensitivity.

It mentions- such reporting demands specialized interviewing skills, a deeper level of understanding of the law, and awareness of the impact of the trauma on the survivors.  

(The Writer is the South Asia Coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author)
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