No one at the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) II in New Delhi can forget 11 July.
“There were more [than a 100]. I can have a bet,” a legal aid counsel said, when asked about the number of journalists present at the hearing of the juvenile accused in the 16 December Delhi gangrape case.
The sheer volume and quality of news coverage has sparked a debate on media reporting on underage suspects, with experts criticizing the unproven vilification of the young man and violations of confidentiality.
Juveniles in conflict with the law (JCL) are tried under the Juvenile Justice (JJ) Act, 2000. Section 21 of the JJ Act prohibits the media from disclosing any detail that can lead to the identification of the JCL unless such disclosure is allowed by the authority conducting the inquiry. Violation of section 21 is punishable with a maximum penalty of Rs 25,000.
A 2012 order of the Delhi High Court also underscores the need to maintain complete confidentiality in cases involving juveniles. And India is a signatory to the UN Standards Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, which requires the juvenile's right to privacy remain inviolate at all stages of the legal process in order to avoid harm caused by undue publicity.
Violation of these laws, however, were routine in reporting on the Delhi gangrape matter, raising serious concerns about the way media should cover issues involving JCLs, said child rights experts.
The Independent cited the name of the state and the district near the village of the teenager in a news report, which described him as the ‘most savage of the attackers.’ Rediff.com published the name of the juvenile accused and that of his village.
This loss of anonymity has irretrievably compromised the safety of the accused, said Bharti Ali, co-director of Delhi based NGO Haq: Centre for Child Rights.
“Whether he is convicted or acquitted, can the press give a guarantee that the boy will not be killed once he is out, whether now or after three years? What media has done him irreparable damage. It will affect the future prospects of his rehabilitation and mainstreaming,” she said.
Two representations filed before the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights by Delhi-based lawyer Anant Asthana demand an inquiry into the violations to determine the lapses, and take remedial measures to minimise harm done to the juvenile accused.
On her part, the principal magistrate in the JJB II, Geetanjali Goel, has not allowed reporters to enter the court room since the beginning of the trial in January.But no written order or direction has been issued imposing a media gag order in this case.
During the last hearing on 11 July, the magistrate did take note of the media coverage of the matter.
“Considering the same, the media is specifically directed not to publish details of this judgment", she ruled, referring to the JJ Act and other regulations regarding the media's coverage of a JCL.
Support for the rights of the accused, especially in this case, is complicated by a context where victims themselves are re-victimised by the judicial process.
Women’s rights groups argue that at a time when rape victims find it hard to receive protection of their identity or a speedy trial, it is wrong to focus solely on the issue of juvenile rights.
Taking extreme positions on clemency or punishment does little to address the underlying problem with a system that does little to protect rights or ensure real reform -- whether a juvenile is involved or not.