AFP PHOTO/ Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
By Rupam Jain Nair
The judge presiding over the trial of five men accused of gang-raping and murdering a student on a bus in New Delhi has now imposed a blanket ban on reporting and told defence lawyers to stop talking to the press. So perhaps it's a good time to step back after a month of the most intensive reporting in my career to reflect on some of the challenges the story has presented as well as the long-term impact on Indian journalism.
In a country where a woman is sexually assaulted on average every 20 minutes – and those are only the cases which are reported – what was it that made this particular attack touch such a nerve? The tragic death of an anonymous 23-year-old student dominated domestic and international headlines for weeks. But what about the other 71 women who were attacked on the very same day?
I, too, stand guilty of ignoring these other cases. All of us as Indian journalists have in the past refrained from writing at any great length about what is a truly frightening incidence of rape and sexual assault on women.
Before we were jolted by this awful wake-up call, journalists working here had gotten into the habit of filing two-paragraph news briefs on sex attacks -- if we filed anything at all. We would justify this blind spot to ourselves by saying: "Rapes happen every day. We can't report them all. What's so different about this case?"
Even now, we are still not reporting all of them and it is simply not possible to do so. But there is a newfound commitment among journalists here since the December 16 gang rape to keep the issue alive. These stories, combined with the indifference of the authorities to the victims, may not make for comfortable reading but there is no ignoring them these days.
AFP PHOTO/Sajjad Hussain
The protests and vigils have begun to fade away but we feel – as journalists – that we have a duty to keep finding ways to informing our nation and the world about the crux of this problem.
The law on sexual offences in India stipulates that the victim in this case – clearly a much-loved medical student – must remain anonymous to readers and viewers. In a country where questions of "family honour" remain extremely sensitive, such a law is understandable and may be well-intentioned.
But having spoken on several occasions to the victim's father and her companion on the fateful night of the attack, I'm not convinced that the gagging of reporting on such a significant event serves justice or the public interest.
"The stories about my daughter's case are shrinking in the newspapers," her father told me last week when I went to him and his wife at their humble home on the outskirts of Delhi in a room filled with their daughter's books and clothes. "Please keep writing about my daughter. If journalists stop writing, then the accused will not be hanged to death," the mother said.
I promised them not to let up in reporting every aspect of the case. But after the new order from the judge, I wonder if it's a promise I will be able to keep.