FROM THE READERS’ EDITOR Readers' Editor

The binding law

I have been critical of whataboutery for both ethical and practical reasons. Ethically, it creates a false hierarchy among the issues confronting us and arranges them in neat political silos. Practically, it diverts our attention from the pressing issue. When I get complaints from the readers of this newspaper, I tend to use accepted journalistic yardsticks to evaluate them and hardly indulge in the comparison of differing standards between news organisations.

Best practices in journalism

I draw from documented best practices for journalism. While many scholars believe that the history of modern journalism begins with the anti-colonial struggle in the United States in the mid-18th century, the finer nuances emerged in the first half of the 20th century. We can distil these principles into five actionable points to understand what constitute the best practices in journalism. They are: 1) differentiate facts from conjecture and opinion, 2) maintain a standard of accuracy, 3) do not easily resort to anonymous sources, 4) do not promote hate and bigotry, and 5) defer to the rule of law, including those dealing with privacy.

Early this week, Chennai was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher in a reputed school. Social media platforms carried all sorts of information. Most of them were violative of the guidelines spelt out in two important laws: the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (the POCSO Act) and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (the JJ Act). Some readers expected this newspaper to follow the norms set by social media.

A report on May 25, “Teacher accused of sexual misconduct suspended”, was seen by this section of readers as incomplete reporting as it did not name the school in which the said offence took place. S. Kathiresan, a reader from Saligramam in Chennai, wrote: “The Hindu has published the name of the accused teacher but not the name of the school. Why are you protecting the school?” I received a number of letters and direct messages on my Twitter account about the failure of the newspaper in naming the school.

The report that the newspaper published was in compliance with the POCSO Act, which clearly states that any form of reporting that may result in identifying the survivor would violate the privacy of the individual. People who express themselves on social media platforms are not necessarily familiar with the laws that govern the reporting of sexual violence against children. It is true that with the proliferation of social media platforms, many rules are broken. At times, even the survivors have been named. But this is a clear violation of the prescribed law.

Pointing out lacunae in the law

At the same time, the newspaper has pointed out the lacunae in the POCSO Act. While reporting within the legal framework is a primary requisite, it is also important to flag the loopholes in the governing law. The newspaper carried a comment article by lawyer Manuraj Shunmugasundaram titled “Expanding the scope of POCSO” (May 25). He argued that necessary changes should be made in the law to account for the reporting of historical child sexual abuse.

The newspaper has been looking at this law closely. For instance, when a single bench of the Madras High Court allowed a petition seeking to quash a case of kidnap in March, a lecturer, Shraddha Chaudhary, wrote a comment article titled “The limits of POCSO” (March 16, 2021). She dealt with the more sensitive area of adolescent sexuality. In her earlier article, “Putting victims on trial” (July 16, 2020), she documented the deeply entrenched patriarchal biases in our justice system.

Like society, journalism too does not condone child sexual violence. But the reporting on this particularly distressing story has to navigate a binding legal regime. For instance, when complaints started emerging against various schools in the city, the newspaper stuck to the legally sanctioned method of reporting. Its report on May 30, “Schools mull child protection measures”, also refrained from naming the other schools which are in the investigative dragnet.

Not naming the schools that failed to protect the students from predatory behaviour does not mean that the newspaper is not worried about accountability and the necessary follow-up action. It has been reporting the police investigation and the observations of the School Education Minister extensively.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 12:51:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/the-binding-law/article34682977.ece

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