With the high court order to stop media outlets from disclosing the identities of rape victims making news, it is a good time to reflect on how gender-based violence has been reported for decades now, without much change. By skimming through the headlines of any newspaper on any given day, one can easily draw a clear distinction between the ways in which violence against women is reported in contrast to other crimes.
WHERE IS THE ISSUE?
The problem lies in the use of passive voice to report such atrocities; it has become a norm to outline the incidents in a way that makes the victims of violence the subject of the narration. It is rather typical to see headlines which go, "woman raped/harassed in (insert location)," often without any mention of the perpetrator (unless they're someone close to the victim). This passivity is not just limited to the headlines, but is found all throughout the account — the articles are structured in a way that puts more focus on the background, family, whereabouts, and other details of the victims' life more than those of the assaulters. In doing so, these articles paint a clearer picture of the devastated state of the victims than that of the monstrosity of the rapists' actions. While this may not seem problematic at first thought, we need to remind ourselves how important tone truly is — especially for platforms that have the ability to influence the minds of hundreds of thousands of readers.
EFFECT ON READERS
While some might argue that such a focus is put on the victims to induce empathy among readers, it is imperative to consider the downside which might be outweighing the positive effects. In Bangladesh, where victim-blaming is a deep-seated problem, it is necessary to shift the focus away from the victims, more so towards the perpetrators. When continuously bombarded with headlines that focus on the victims more than their abusers, public reaction inclines towards sympathy rather than anger. But right now, we need rage more than sympathy. Besides, in a society like ours where being assaulted against is still equated with a loss of honour, the looming fear of being identified publicly makes it harder for victims to come forward with their stories to take legal action.
DOES THE HIGH COURT ORDER CHANGE MUCH?
Although an important step towards ending the tendency of the media to report violence against women passively, it is not enough to bring substantial change. Following this order, news outlets may stop disclosing the victims' identity, but the tone is likely to remain the same. Given that, it is imperative to call on journalists to turn the tide now more than ever. The shift in voice could truly prove to be effective in not only changing the course of public dialogue on gender-based violence, but also give victims of assault and rape more space to speak up.
In 2021, the bar for journalism in this regard must be set higher, and that could easily begin with more headlines that say:
"man raped/harassed woman in (insert location)"
After all, why should rapists not be the subject and focal point of attention for a crime they committed?