Bangkok, Thailand – The young woman arrived at the police station to a swarm of journalists snapping photos before she got out of her car and had time to hide her face beneath a baseball cap.
They mobbed her as she walked into the station, her head lowered in shame. One photographer knelt down to the ground and tilted his camera up to capture a glimpse of her face.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“They acted like I was a celebrity who had done something gravely wrong,” she said, unwilling to reveal her identity for this story.
But this young woman was not a celebrity and she hadn’t done anything wrong. She is a 23-year-old rape victim who had gathered the courage to report the crime.
Police should have informed me about my rights, or advised me on what I should do. They didn't do anything at all.
When she arrived at the police station, officers instructed her to answer questions from the media before she could file her report. No one told her she had the option to refuse being photographed or interviewed.
“I was crying and I felt pressured,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Police should have informed me about my rights, or advised me on what I should do. They didn’t do anything at all.”
Her experience is hardly unusual.
Open up a Thai daily or scroll through news websites and one finds photographs of rape victims under graphic headlines, often bordering on the obscene.
The photos are either shot from the side, or trivially edited with blurring effects or black bars across the eyes. Personal details such as the victim’s full name and home address can also slip their way into the news, making any effort to protect their privacy appear a sham.
This publicity has serious consequences in Thailand, where rape is shrouded in stigma, and victim-blaming is common. The young woman in this story, for example, was asked to resign from her job at a telecommunications company after employers recognised her from television reports.
Another girl in central Thailand was refused service at a local store after she reported being raped by a community leader.
Although Thailand is known internationally for its freewheeling sex industry, deep pockets of conservatism still define much of the culture, which remains largely patriarchal.
According to statistics provided by the Royal Thai police, only about 3,000 rapes were reported in 2014 – a tiny fraction of the incidents that actually occur, according to researchers.
Women who report rape are often accused of attempting to blackmail their attackers. Social workers say the media not only exposes women to this hostile climate, but perpetuates these backward views.
“This is a part of what makes people think that women caused the problem.”
Flouting the rules
The photographic frenzy that greeted the young woman at the police station is technically banned by Thailand’s Press Council, a committee of newspaper editors who set ethical standards for journalists.
According to guidelines established in 2006, newspapers are prohibited from publishing the names and photos of women and children who have been sexually assaulted.
Yet nearly 10 years later, these guidelines have still failed to take root.
In a particularly flagrant example, an article published in 2011 – five years after the guidelines were established – includes a photo of a woman passed out on the beach.
It was taken only hours after she was raped, and before she regained consciousness. The headline described the incident as “a moral lesson” for “a woman who was senseless drunk”.
Chai Patakamin, a member of the Press Council and an editor at Daily News, a major tabloid, admitted that “slip-ups” of this kind still happen, but said they are much less frequent than before.
|Thai woman faces jail|
“I don’t see many problematic photos in rape cases any more,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he personally believes it’s best not to publish photos of victims at all.
Yet recently, at least four of Thailand’s major newspapers have published photos on their websites of a rape victim being questioned by police inside her home.
Cosy press-police relationship
The media’s failure to protect the privacy of sexual assault victims can be traced in part to the cosy relationship between reporters and police, who work so intimately that the line between the two institutions can be blurred.
Crime stories reported in newspapers are often generated solely from police reports, functioning as a sort of free publicity. In exchange, police provide reporters with story tip-offs and inside information.
“Reporters and police rely on each other,” explained Chai. “But if we are not careful, we may be used by police. We have to exercise judgement.”
Al Jazeera asked one senior policeman if the department notifies reporters about criminal cases.
“We use many channels… We are not required to notify in every case, but if it will benefit the case, it’s okay,” said a chief investigative officer at a Bangkok police station, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to go on the record.
Like the Thai press, the police force is a male-dominated institution that still retains some old-school attitudes towards women and sex crimes.
“Officers often try to convince victims to settle privately instead of filling a report, because they still view rape as a ‘personal matter’,” said Jaded Chouwilai, the director of Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation.
“Male police also often project a victim-blaming attitude,” he said, “asking the victim questions like, ‘Did you dress inappropriately?'”
The legal framework built to protect survivors of sexual assault has grown sturdier in recent years, but social workers say that enforcement remains lacking. For example, many officers – including those interviewed for this story – were only recently made aware of a 2001 law that grants victims of criminal acts the right to seek compensation from the state. Police were not officially required to inform victims of this right until last year.
The Ministry of Justice had to publicly remind police of this law as recently as last November.
Similarly, women and children reporting sexual abuse were granted the option several years ago to be questioned by a female investigative officer, but there are only 315 policewomen in the force – not nearly enough to meet the country’s demand.
“In Thailand, we have so many laws, but not much empowerment,” explained Jaded.
“The mechanisms are there, but we have to make them more welcoming to women. We have to help them believe that they won’t be blamed.”
|Thailand cracks down on human smugglers|
After the young woman reported her rape, she was haunted by a fear that people, especially her family, would recognise her from the photos.
One day at work, before she lost her job, a customer looked at her and asked, “Are you the one in the news?”
Social workers say this fear of recognition is precisely what deters so many victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.
The young woman eventually got another job, but she didn’t find out until weeks later – after she had filed her report with police – that her case had never been pursued.
It turned out she had missed the statute of limitations – a mere three months – by a few days. Police had neglected to tell her this until after the media scrum had been summoned, and the news was out.
“It’s like they gave me false hope,” she said. “But in the end, well, it didn’t help at all.”