Naming the victim

Anonymity difficult to maintain in social media


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Few people have been left unmoved by the attack on Rinelle Harper. Harper, 16, was beaten and sexually assaulted by two men last Friday and left for dead on the riverwalk. She was found early Saturday morning and rushed to hospital in critical condition.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/11/2014 (2824 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Few people have been left unmoved by the attack on Rinelle Harper. Harper, 16, was beaten and sexually assaulted by two men last Friday and left for dead on the riverwalk. She was found early Saturday morning and rushed to hospital in critical condition.

The Winnipeg Police Service on Monday took the rare and unusual step of releasing her name to the media, in a bid to catch the perpetrators. By Wednesday, arrests were made. Two men, aged 17 and 20, were charged, not only in Harper’s case, but also for a sexual assault on another 23-year-old woman that occurred two hours after the Harper attack.

Winnipeg Police Service Supt. Danny Smyth said releasing the identity of the victim was a tough decision for the police to make. At a news conference Wednesday, Smyth said the police felt it was important to release her name “to humanize her.”

John Woods / THE CANADIAN PRESS files Police Supt. Danny Smyth believed it was important to name the victim of a brutal sexual assault in order to help catch the assailants.

On Thursday, Smyth went further, saying generic information provided by police doesn’t necessarily help move investigations along. He said police were so “outraged by what happened, we felt it would resonate more with the public if we could identify her.”

While Smyth would not go into details, he did say as a result “information came forward that wouldn’t have come forward had Rinelle’s name not been released.”

For Karen Busby, who teaches law at the University of Manitoba, releasing a victim’s name carries with it certain danger. “It’s too risky because of the stigmatizing effect and the whisper campaign that may follow a victim.” Once the name is released, she says, it can’t be un-released. The genie is out of the bottle.

Indeed, the myth women lie about sexual assault remains deeply engrained in our culture, despite the fact few rapes get reported and even fewer rapes actually end up going to trial.

Smyth made it clear releasing the identity of the victim would only happen with full consent. In Harper’s case, because she is a minor and because she was unconscious at the time, consent was provided by her parents. “We wouldn’t be quick to do that again, and we would never do it, without the full consent of the family and the victim,” says Smyth.

Having said that, Smyth also pointed out police did not release the victim’s photo. Within hours of Harper being identified, her picture was all over social media sites and indeed, within the mainstream media, leaving Smyth wondering about anonymity.

Indeed, social media sites have meant that information about sexual assaults victims is shared online, either deliberately or inadvertently.

Take for example, a 17-year-old Nova Scotian who killed herself in April 2013, after photos of her being sexually assaulted were posted and then she was bullied both online and in text messages. A publication ban means her name cannot be published, even though everyone knows who she was and media outlets outside of Canada have identified her and her family. Her step-dad blogged about what his daughter went through:

“Why is it they didn’t just think they would get away with it; they knew they would get away with it. They took photos of it. They posted it on their Facebook walls. They emailed it to God knows who. They shared it with the world as if it was a funny animation.”

The victims are being identified, but in many cases, so too are the victimizers.

But hold on, don’t think this leads to any type of justice. Nova Scotia police never did lay sexual assault charges against any of the individuals in the case. Instead, two men were charged with child pornography. On Thursday, one of the men was given probation and told to apologize to her family. The now 20-year-old man was one of the people who took a photo, one in which his friend is seen penetrating the 15-year-old from behind while giving a thumbs-up sign.

In this case, the anonymity of the victim is ironically referenced on twitter as #youknowhername.

Moreover, her step-father has been vilified online by a men’s rights group. In an online blog posted on the website A Voice For Men, Patrick John Doring wrote: “It seems to me, from where I’m sitting, that (victim’s name) was not gang-raped, she was the willing participant in a drunken orgy.” He wrote further: “I believe the real fault lies with the parents for being irresponsible and failing to supervise their children. (Name of father) why was your daughter permitted to drink and use drugs at her age in the first place? It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume she would also be sexually active at a party.”


Dear god, I hope this Texas-based organization never hears of Rinelle Harper. By name or otherwise.


Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor. Twitter: @PaulySigh

Is it too difficult to maintain anonymity in sexual assault cases due to social media? Join the conversation in the comments below.


Updated on Friday, November 14, 2014 7:34 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds question for discussion

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