Opinion: Why the 'India’s Daughter' ban is bad for journalism
The Indian government’s decision to ban the BBC’s documentary “India’s Daughter,” about the brutal gang rape on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, has the country divided.
In addition to concerns about censorship, there are also questions about journalistic access. The government has said it banned the film because the it gives one of the rapist a platform for his views and could create a “law and order problem.”
In an interview showcased in the film, one of the rapists, who is now facing a death sentence, shows no remorse and blames the victim’s death on her decision to fight back. Those who support the ban worry it could lead to “copycat crimes.”
Those who support airing of the film in India – myself included – hope it will start a conversation about taboo topics, force introspection about a subculture that fosters such gender bias and, most of all, that it will raise awareness about atrocities that are committed but often not reported.
The documentary shows not just the viewpoint of the rapists, but the parents of Jyoti Singh, the girl who was raped. It shows the protesters demanding justice and the country rallying behind Singh.
Ethics and vulnerable subjects
When I was reading various points of view on social media, I was reminded of a discussion we had last year during a Poynter workshop conducted in three Indian cities.
The topic was ethics and dealing with vulnerable subjects. The room was similarly divided about how to cover rape and violence. Some thought covering rape would lead to more rapes. Some, mostly women, were in favor of covering rape to change the culture of victimization. They thought more reporting of these crimes could lead to increased empathy for victims by the public, and to changes in law enforcement and the justice system.
Banning books, films or controversial speech has long been a government tactic to suppress free speech and limit scrutiny. Indian citizens have the right to information, and freedom of speech and information is central to democracy.
The government is now questioning the permission documents that the filmmaker obtained to get the jailhouse interview and reviewing procedures for access those in jail, which could set a dangerous precedent.
It could hinder journalists from keeping “necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed,” which is the main objective of India’s Right to Information Act.
The potential for change
As far as the argument about increased rapes goes, the fact is that there has been an increase in the number of rapes in India. National Crime Records Bureau statistics show 93 women are raped in India every day. And child sexual abuse occurs at horrifying levels and is massively underreported.
But films have historically played a huge role in shifting mindsets in India. Fictional films from a half-century ago, often showed the only recourse for a woman who was raped was to kill herself to avoid shaming to her family’s honor or to marry the rapist. The 1980 movie, “Insaaf ka Taraju,” or “Scales of Justice,” changed that by featuring a protagonist who refuses these options. She fights and loses the case against the rapist who, shockingly, goes on to rape her younger sister. The heroine eventually resorts to vigilante justice. Like “India’s Daughter,” “Scales of Justice” was controversial, but it changed the dialogue about how Indians respond to a victim of rape.
Indian women are warned from childhood about how to protect themselves — limit your outings, don’t rock the boat, accept your circumstances, cover yourself. We, as Indians, challenge these assumptions at every level and we have made huge progress. The documentary shows women coming out in hoards to demand justice, along with men.
Since we can’t become vigilantes, we as a civilized nation need to have constructive dialogue and raise awareness about this issue. We need to change how men view women, change how women perceive women and how families raise their children. We need to change the attitudes of police, who perpetuate the “shame on the woman” myth by discouraging women to report rapes. We need to change laws to reflect the equal status of women in India and provide the resources they need to protect themselves.
Banning “India’s Daughter” further perpetuates a culture of shame. The rapist has grown up in a culture unaware that a woman is not supposed to just lay back and accept being raped. The film isn’t a platform for his views — it is a shocking revelation of deeply rooted biases within India’s culture.
The documentary will lead to awareness and further discussion, not cause an increase in the number of rapes. It will show that we are challenging these notions and changing the culture. One can only hope it will also lead to an increase in the reporting of rapes as more and more women break the cycle of shame.