The rape and murder of a young woman in India has brought protesters to the streets. Both the national and international press have closely followed the public outrage and tepid response from government officials, turning out in full force to see the accused men in court on Monday. The swarm of journalists prompted a local judge to not only ban reporters from the courtroom, but also prohibit anyone from covering the trial. Brooke talks with New York Times reporter Niharika Mandhana about the repercussions of the ban, and about why the government would keep the trial off the public record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last month in India, a young woman was gang raped and murdered, a tragedy that has inflamed the entire country. She and a male friend were taking a bus home after a trip to see the movie Life of Pi when they were brutally attacked by five adult men and one juvenile riding the bus. After she was raped, she and her companion were beaten with an iron rod and left for dead on the side of the road. Outraged by the government’s less-than-aggressive response to the incident, protesters took to the streets.
[SHOUTS/SOUNDS OF PROTEST]
WOMAN: It’s, it’s hard to believe that this is the state of my country, and that’s why I couldn’t sit back anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Both national and international media have closely followed the event, fueling demands for a fast-tracked trial and reform to India's laws governing rape. After what many saw as a sluggish process, six men have now been formally charged with murder and rape. On Monday, dozens of reporters joined lawyers and spectators to see the accused in court.
Niharika Mandhana, a reporter for the New Delhi Bureau of the New York Times, was part of the press corps crammed into that courtroom and she was present when the local magistrate brought the hammer down on the press.
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: And she passed an order saying that the court hall would have to be vacated, not just that day but from that day ‘til the end of the trial, and that the media would not be allowed to print or publish any information connected with the court proceedings. And then she said that the police had an apprehension as to the safety of the accused. There was no safe passage. They didn’t know how to bring the accused to the witness box, given the large group of people that had congregated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One can certainly understand how the crowding in the courtroom would pose a danger to both the defendants and the proceedings, but none of these reasons seem to justify a ban on reporting on the proceedings, even if the reporters aren't allowed into the courtroom.
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: In her order, she doesn’t specifically address the issue of gagging the media. The arguments that the prosecutor made when asking for the gag order was that there are details that would compromise the identity of the family and the details of the crime, which is an undesirable situation, if not unlawful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because the notion is that the victim and her family should be protected, but in this case the victim is dead and the family is fine with having her name out there as a symbol of systemic failure, right?
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: Right, and that’s what’s being challenged. That’s what a lot of lawyers were challenging the order, saying that this is just being used by the police who want to wriggle out of the scrutiny situation, using all sorts of excuses to gag the media and take the public pressure off of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One lawyer who’s challenging the order, who you quote, Kumar Mishra, says that the entire system is being judged, not just the police who first responded to the crime but also the doctors who treated the woman?
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: It has emerged during the last three weeks of investigation, etc., that the police may not have responded to the first call, that there was an unreasonable delay police appearing at the scene of the crime, and then the, the male companion who survived the attack, has said that police officers fought over jurisdiction, while you have these two wounded people lying on a roadway.
And then there’s also been a whole debate about whether the medical treatment she received was good enough, whether she should have been moved out of the country from Delhi to Singapore when she was in a fragile state. So lawyers were challenging the order, saying, we need to know what else contributed, if anything, to her death. And without the trial being open and without the media having access to some of these records and facts, that these things will be suppressed and never be known.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right now, there are a number of different narratives about the incident floating around. If reporters aren't allowed to report, who controls the narrative?
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: There are at least five or six different versions of the facts at the moment, and without official briefings from any of the involved parties, be it the police or the court or the family, it’s tough to ascertain what the facts are and who is conjuring up stories. I mean, every day the media prints, “He says X and she says Y,” but is not allowed access to the court or if the court at the end of the day does not sit down with the media and say, this is what we learned and this is what we’re allowed to share with you, I don’t know how a cohesive and accurate narrative of what happened will emerge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess it is a, a reflex maybe for this program, to be offended by the largest democracy in the world gagging press, I’m not talking about barring them from the courtroom, but gagging them from discussing a case of so much importance.
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: I think that that is the sense in the media, as well as in lawyers. This was challenged first before a district judge and now before the high court. There is a large contingent that believes that there is nothing to warrant this sort of gag, a) and b) that there is good reason why details of this case should be in the public domain, and this is a fight that’s going to be fought over the next couple of weeks. But at this point, it remains uncertain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Niharika, thank you very much.
NIHARIKA MANDHANA: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Niharika Mandhana is a reporter for the New York Times India Bureau, in New Delhi.