In Spain, coverage of a sex crime opens debate about revealing identifying details in the press

July 5, 2019

In late May, a 32-year-old woman living outside Madrid killed herself after a sex video she’d taken of herself five years earlier resurfaced. (For privacy reasons, I won’t identify the woman.) The video was circulated within several WhatsApp groups at her workplace, a manufacturing plant with about 2,000 employees, most of them men. A police investigation is underway. (Since 2015, sharing media of a private nature without the subject’s consent has been a crime under Spanish law, punishable by three months to a year of jail time.)

The woman’s death caused a sensation in the Spanish press. It was covered nationally, and became the topic of multiple stories over about two weeks in every major publication. Headlines called attention to its most salacious elements, frequently and inaccurately stating that the woman killed herself because of the video, and not because it was shared among hundreds of people without her consent. One such headline read, “The mother who committed suicide because of her sex video.”

In the first days of coverage, some papers, including the Spanish daily El País, referred to the woman only by her initials and avoided including identifying details. Other outlets, like El Espanol, and the British tabloids The Daily Mirror, and The Sun printed her first and last names along with personal information like her hometown. The tabloids even printed photos of her face. Within days, almost every local publication was using the woman’s full name, which, along with her workplace, were highlighted in news articles and used as clickable tags. Those same terms were appearing elsewhere, too: on Spanish porn sites. The woman’s name was a top search query. It has not yet been uploaded, but the demand for amateur material means that it is likely to find its way online. 

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Reputable news outlets who named the woman were, for the most part, trying to avoid a story with a faceless victim. But how can the media humanize victims of sexual violence without inadvertently doxxing them — revealing key identifying details — or facilitating access to sensitive material, like a sex tape? Barbijaputa, a well-known feminist columnist in Spain, sums it up this way: “Once the name [of a victim] is public domain, feminism uses it to humanize the woman behind it. But machismo always finds a way to use it for its own purposes, in this case, as another keyword to search for her video on porn tubes.”

Two privacy experts I spoke with, Samuel Parra and Borja Adsuara, told me that getting rid of the video would be nearly impossible. In Spain, individuals lose rights to data protection after their death. In this case, Parra said, the woman’s family could press charges on her behalf, invoking the 2015 law. But Adsuara told me that the best they could do would be to press charges for defamation of the dead — invoking a so-called “good memory” law — or for sexual harassment. Even if charges are brought, there would be no way to stop the video’s circulation.

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Pilar Alvarez, the chief gender correspondent for El País, argues that privacy problems won’t end with concealing the woman’s name. “If the name had been known, or if it hadn’t been known, it comes down to the same. The searches would have been made with other keywords,” she says. Many searches were conducted with only the name of the woman’s workplace and the word “employee.” “That’s not just a journalism problem,” Alvarez says, “that’s an education problem.”

Ana Bernal-Triviño, a professor of digital journalism at Catalonia’s Open University, also defends the use of names and personal details in news stories. “Victims are usually seen as mere numbers, not people, so it’s important [we share] a name, a story, a life, a family, children. We have to tell victims’ stories to dignify them, especially in the media, where victim blaming abounds.” Indeed, shortly after news of the woman’s suicide broke, a famous bullfighter, Fran Rivera, stated on a local TV program: “Men, and I say this because I’m a man, we’re not capable of seeing a video like this and not sharing it… Women and girls, please don’t send this kind of video.” The comment spread nearly as far as news of the suicide.

For Graciela Atencio, a journalist who heads, one of Spain’s most comprehensive gender violence databases, dignifying victims of sexual violence means shielding them from unwanted scrutiny. “When a victim’s integrity is at stake — especially if this involves a video containing sexual violence — I don’t believe it’s a good thing that the media provides information with the victim’s name,” she says. She adds that outlets need ethical guidelines on how to appropriately cover gender violence.

A year ago, questions about the media’s role in sharing information about victims came to a head with Spain’s most controversial sexual assault trial in recent memory. Five men were acquitted of the gang rape of a young woman at Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls in 2016, and instead charged with sexual abuse. The verdict sparked massive nationwide protests that culminated in the country’s own #MeToo movement. (This June, Spain’s Supreme Court reversed the decision and convicted the five men of rape.)

When news broke that two of the men had filmed the assault on their phones, searches for the videos under “Wolf Pack” — a moniker for the five men — spiked on porn sites. A spokesperson for XHamster told the press that although the video never appeared on the site, the company found the searches alarming, and blocked them. 

But efforts to identify the victim didn’t stop there. Soon after the verdict was handed down, Forocoches, Spain’s version of 4Chan, and other male-centric forums that rallied behind the accused men, posted the identity of the victim and shared pictures of her culled from her social media profiles. (She had previously been anonymous.) They were able to do so because of an error in the public version of the sentencing document. But this was simply the final step in a long endeavor: for months already, they had been cross-referencing bits of information published piecemeal across various media, connecting the dots. Men’s rights messaging boards and websites urged users to troll the plaintiff as punishment for what they considered to be a false accusation.

I wrote about the Wolf Pack case for The Guardian. In my story, I worried about how to humanize a woman known to most of the world as “the victim,” while the only corners of the Internet that could put a face and a name to her did so punitively. Ultimately, I focused on the political dimensions of the case

The fact that I never spoke with her (she has never spoken to the press) nor received her consent to write a story about a heinous act that invaded her privacy also caused me worry. As El País’s Alvarez told me in an interview at the time: “[the Wolf Pack victim] has become a symbol of too many things. It’s too much weight for such a young woman to carry.” She called the case’s coverage “a moment of reflection for the media and those of us who write about [gender violence] issues.”

Spain’s Data Protection Agency has opened an inquiry into the suicide case. In June, it announced plans to create a new service allowing victims of revenge porn to notify the agency of videos published online. It aims to remove them within 24 hours, “before they go viral.”

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Meaghan Beatley is a journalist based in Barcelona who writes about feminism and politics. Follow her on Twitter @mbeatley.