Decade-old sexual abuse case triggers debate over media ethics
A decade-old criminal case in which a 14-year-old girl was allegedly sexually abused by 11 villagers, including her own father and grandfather, has recently triggered online debate over media ethics, after a report about the girl’s mother looking for the girl, who has cut ties with her family, and claiming they were innocent was published by Chinese news portal thepaper.cn. 
 
The report, which has been deleted, disclosed the victim Tang Lanlan’s (pseudonym) personal information obtained by the reporter from the local police station and provided by Tang’s mother who was sentenced to prison for forcing other people into prostitution in 2012 and released in June 2017. 
 
Chinese netizens are outraged as many believe the report is biased and has harmed the privacy of Tang Lanlan who, now 23 years old, has changed her name and still remains untraceable. 
 
Sexual abuse
 
In October 2008, the then 14-year-old girl Tang Lanlan wrote a letter to the local police station in Longzhen town in Wudalianchi, Heilongjiang province, saying that she had been raped and sexually abused by her own father, grandfather, uncles, teachers, the rural director and neighbors since she was seven years old. 
 
Three days after the letter was sent to the police, 16 people from the village were arrested on charges of sexual assault against a minor. In 2012, 11 of these suspects were sentenced to prison for rape and prostitution. Among them were Tang’s biological parents who were found guilty of forcing other people into prostitution. 
 
According to thepaper.cn, all the 11 suspects sought to overturn the original verdict, but the court maintained the original verdict during a second trial in 2012. 
 
So far, five of the 11 suspects have been released including Wan Xiuli, Tang’s mother, together with others who are now asking lawyers to appeal, claiming that 14-year-old Tang had been instigated by others to fabricate the story.
 
Fu Jian, Tang Yumei's lawyer, told the Global Times on Thursday that the case lacks evidence - the suspects have all denied their involvement, and two were sentenced without any testimonies.
 
Tang was supported by her adopted parents throughout the prosecution period.
 
Online fury 
 
An author of the report traveled to Longzhen with Tang’s mother to interview local residents who were familiar with the case and some relatives of the other convicts. The report also posted evidence and photos showing details about Tang’s possible new address and childhood pictures, drawing criticism for violating the girl’s privacy. 
 
After the report was published on January 30, many on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, blamed the media for “being unscrupulous” and questioned the media’s ethics in reporting the story. 
 
Some said the media had gone too far by turning itself into a party involved in the case.
 
“The media has turned itself into one of the parties of the case and is standing together with the criminals, which violates the principle of objectivity and impartiality of the media,” said Feixiangwangligang on Sina Weibo. 
 
“Isn’t it the court’s responsibility to check the authenticity of the evidence, and how did it become the responsibility of the media?” another said. 
 
Another focus of the debate is the public’s “right to know” versus personal privacy. 
 
“While the public deserves the truth, there is also a legal system and ethical boundary the media should follow. In particular, the ‘right to know’ should not override personal privacy when it comes to cases relating to minors. Uncovering the truth is in no way the same as exposing the victim,” said the People’s Daily on its Weibo account. 
 
Although the verdict on the case has taken effect, it doesn’t mean it’s legal to release evidence and information about the victim, according to Zhang Yang, an assistant with the first branch of the People’s Procuratorate of Beijing, and Zhao Peng, vice director of the public prosecution department of the People’s Procuratorate of Beijing. 
 
“When it comes to national security, personal privacy and criminal cases relating to minors, essential information still needs to be kept confidential, even when the whole litigation process is over. As the victim in this case was a minor back to when it happened, it has violated the victim’s privacy rights by exposing details and evidence of the case,” they wrote (link in Chinese) in an article published on the WeChat account of the Global Times. 
 
Need for caution
 
On January 31, Wudalianchi’s Politics and Law Committee released a statement, urging netizens to be cautious about those who spread fake information and create confusion.
 
“Since Tang’s mother was released on June 29, 2017, she has continuously appealed in different places, and with the help of a few media she has put pressure on local political and legal departments to reverse the verdict,” read the statement, adding they would be supportive and lead the litigants to follow the legal process in appealing.

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