TW: Sexual assault
Media coverage of sexual assault in 2020 is not off to an auspicious start. Last summer, an 18-year-old British woman went to the Cypriot police with a report of gang rape. She alleged that, during consensual sex with a male acquaintance, eleven of his friends entered the room, pinned her down, and raped her”. Following the attack, she fled her hotel, went to a Cypriot police station, where she was examined, and found to have bruises and scratches consistent with rape.
The twelve alleged assailants were were taken into custody. Just two days after the attack, the woman visited the Cypriot police again, to give a statement. She was accused by the police of lying about the report, and questioned for eight hours without a lawyer present. After this, she signed a statement retracting her allegations. The suspects were released, she was charged with an act of ‘public mischief’, and on the 30th July 2019, was imprisoned in Cypriot jail for a month. She, and her team of lawyers, tried to have the statement retracted – the judge refused.
The trial that followed was incredibly concerning. A doctor giving evidence for the prosecution’s case countered the possibility that her injuries were consistent with rape; the judge ruled them to be jellyfish stings, or light injuries. The UK Crown Prosecution commented on this judgement, saying it was a ‘myth’ that a lack of serious physical injury ruled out the possibility of rape.
The statement the woman signed retracting her initial report was held up by the judge; he branded her behaviour and words ‘contradictory, inconsistent, exaggerated and inflated’. A linguistic expert working with the National Crime Agency examined the statement, and found inaccuracies that suggested the author of the statement was not a native speaker of English.
The headlines, particularly in UK reporting did not reflect these inconsistencies, and showed a total lack of desire to probe deeper into the details of what can only be seen as an incredibly
flawed legal case. Following the charge, and during her trial, headlines such as: ‘Ayia Napa ‘rape lie’ Brit will be treated as a sex attack victim by cops in the UK’ (The Sun, 9thJanuary 2020); ‘British teenager in gang rape case had no serious physical injuries, doctor tells Cyprus court’ (The Telegraph, 29thNovember 2019 and ‘Ayia Napa Briton sentenced over false rape claim’ (BBC News, 7thJanuary 2020) were published in multiple national newspapers. The story of a false rape conviction, rather than a legally flawed trial, dominates the primary information reported.
The BBC’s coverage saw significant criticism by The Gemini Project, a non- profit working to end sexual violence. They covered many elements of the case that had been missed by the BBC’s reporting, including, but not limited to: the victim being denied access to a lawyer, in contravention of the European Convention of Human Rights and the assailants not being present and not required to give evidence at the trial ‘despite four traces of DNA being found on the victim’.
This is just a snapshot of the media coverage of the case, which neglected, for much of the reporting, to look critically at the case, or consider the wider context. The headlines represent a fanaticised, and politicised caricature of false rape allegations, a concept that already is disproportionately covered.
Let’s look at the statistics reported by the British Home Office for the 2000s concerning allegations of sexual assault that were found, at some point in the proceedings, to be false. At the first state, there were 216 reports that were found to be false. Then, there were 126 formal complaints lodged that were found to be false, next 39 that had a subject named. Finally just two cases (that were later reversed) were even charged.
When you look at the statistics, the coverage surrounding false rape allegations is far more inflammatory, and disproportionate to its statistical occurrence. This is not to say that allegations and indeed a charge cannot be incredibly damaging, but these cases receive far more attention than any other false report of comparable crimes – that’s where the damage lies. It is incredibly rare for an allegation of rape to put an innocent person in prison, but the rhetoric surrounding false allegations gives it media awareness unlike any other category of crime.
Varying statistics suggest that false allegations are ‘found or suspected’ in 2-6% of cases; this is a statistic that could include inflation by police, or a lack of corroborating evidence (and is in line with other crimes).
False allegations of rape remain deeply grounded within cultural memory. Perhaps the most significant was an article printed in Rolling Stone in 2014 describing a female student at University of Virginia’s experience of gang rape by seven members of a fraternity – the article’s facts were quickly refuted as false.
This story was a by-word for rape scepticism – it was mentioned frequently online during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate as part of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings – just another example of a story which was ultimately dismissed as tenuous by parts of the media, and by the political establishment. Fair and unbiased reporting about cases
of sexual assault has been an uphill battle, with #MeToo representing a seismic shift in the attention and legitimacy given to sexual assault reports, particularly those involving the world’s most powerful people. In both 2018 and 2019, the Pulitzer Prizes for Investigative Reporting went to reporters covering cases of sexual assault (by Roy Moore and George Tyndall, and a USC doctor, respectively).
Only 1.5% of all rape cases lead to charges or summons, and undoubtedly, fear of police misconduct and media hounding. Let’s focus on the true injustice of the legal inconsistencies in the Ayia Napa case; the possibility of an appeal; the privacy of the 19-year-old woman, and stop pandering to inflated ideas of false allegations where the data just doesn’t support it. The narrative of simply accepting her retracted statement with little to no scrutiny is incredibly damaging, and may have ramifications for future reporting of sexual assault. Numerous photos of the woman appear online, and it doesn’t take too much searching to find pictures that aren’t pixelated, or her real name (regardless of her anonymity, this slip through). Like the Samaritans’ best practise suicide reporting, sexual assault coverage in the media must be standardised, not sensationalised.