Reporting gender based violence sensitively: Resources for journalists

Compiled by Ranjitha Gunasekaran and Ragamalika Karthikeyan

  1. Five simple rules for reporting on gender violence, by Prajnya Trust
  1. The sexual harassment of women at workplace (prevention, prohibition and redressal) Act, 2013
  1. The protection of women from domestic violence Act, 2005
  1. Justice Verma Committee report, 2013
  1. The Indian laws on sexual harassment at workplace: Here’s what you need to know, by The News Minute
  1. Which sexual harassment and assault stories should you cover? by Poynter
  1. GLAAD media reference guide for reporting on LGBTQI+ people and issues
  1. How to report about LGBTQIA+ people: Guidelines for journalists, by The News Minute
  1. Gender and sexuality 101, by The News Minute
  1. My gender is what I choose: Transgender community’s appeal to Tamil media, by The News Minute
  1. The transgender persons (protection of rights) Act, 2019, to be read with its criticism – here, here, here, and here
  1. Community guidelines for ethical coverage of LGBT people and issues in media and on social networks, by Orinam
  1. Queer terms in Tamil, by Moulee, Queer Chennai Chronicles
  1. NHRC’s guidelines for the media in addressing the issue of child sexual abuse
  1. UNICEF guidelines for journalists reporting on children
  1. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012

  2. The juvenile justice (care and protection of children) Act, 2015

  3. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013

  4. Enabling report of rape in India, The Hindu Centre Policy Note, 2015

  5. GBV in media, a media ethics toolkit on sensitive reportage, Feminism in India, 2019

  6. Till death do us part, The Post and Courier, 2014

  7. Child marriage: Wake up to cervical cancer risks, say doctors, The New Indian Express, 2019

  8. Victims in Scripture Union case explain why they took so long to make issue public, TNIE, 2020

  9. Journalist Guide to Reporting Child Sexual Abuse, Utah Department of Human Services, 2019

  10. Guidelines for media reporting on children, NCPCR/Delhi High Court, 2012

  11. The two-finger test doesn’t work? No one told the medical colleges, The Ladies Finger, 2014

  12. What to do if you have been raped, The Ladies Finger, 2015

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NY Times: How to Break a Sexual Harassment Story

The media is awash with stories on sexual harassment.

The New York Times published a backstory on the work of its own reporters on three important stories this year.

“There are a number of factors that make allegations of sexual harrassment difficult to report. In all three cases, reporters said sources were hesitant to speak out because their allegations were so intimate; because they feared reprisal by powerful men; and in many instances, the women involved had entered into settlements that included nondisclosure agreements.”

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Two newsroom rules for reporting on women’s bodies

Slightly outside our beat but relevant to the topic of gender-sensitive reporting is this article on the Columbia Journalism Review by Kara Alaimo which offers two rules to journalists and news outlets:

  1. Don’t, unless it is news about fashion.
  2. If you are going to write about women’s bodies in all sorts of stories, do the same for men.

Take a look: Kara Alaimo, Newsrooms should follow two simple rules for reporting on women’s bodies, Columbia Journalism Review, March 14, 2017.

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More examples of how not to cover sexual assault

The Ladies Finger has published a critical review of the reportage surrounding the sexual assault of an actor in Kerala–the same one that Dhanya Rajendran’s comment refers to. Read the full article for an explanation of exactly what has gone wrong in the way the incident has been covered. An extract is given below.

Ila Ananya, The Public Response to the Sexual Assault of a Malayali Actor Has been Batshit, The Ladies Finger, February 21, 2017. (full article)

Ever since news of a Malayalam actor being abducted and sexually assaulted on Friday, 17th February broke, there have been a flurry of news reports, each trying to outdo the other with information on the case. So far, we know the basic details of the case — that the actor was on her way home at night in Kochi after a shoot when the men got into her car and sexually assaulted her, and that they took photos of her as way of blackmail. Reportedly, one of the accused used to work as her driver (and has a criminal record). He then got her present driver, who is also accused in the case, the job. This was followed by reports stating that of the seven accused, three have been arrested, and now, the three men have sought anticipatory bail in the Kerala High Court.

Over the last four days, things have become more complicated (there have even been reports doing the rounds that people who are a part of the Kerala film industry might just have a role to play). But in a hurry to report what has become ‘sensational’ news about an actor, the media seems to have forgotten the basic rules involved in reporting cases of sexual assault. There are two aspects to the media frenzy over this case — apart from gross sensationalising of the news, first few reports only reported abduction, which is why the actor was named in these reports. Soon after, other reports began to note that the FIR has been lodged under various sections of the IPC, including 376 (rape), 366 (kidnapping) and 506 (criminal intimidation). The rules here are honestly not so hard to forget: No name, no photos, and no clues to identify the victim.

Is it because the case involves an actor that these rules have been broken time and again? Or because it’s the sense that their story is just one among a whole bunch of similar stories being published online? But four days after the incident, the rules are still being broken — if the report doesn’t have her name, this ‘missing’ piece of information is ‘balanced’ out by adding her photo to it. Others didn’t name the actor or carry her photos, but named every movie she acted in, and if they changed their headlines, the actor’s name remained in their URL.

…After so many years and so many similar incidents, the media has still not learnt to report women’s issues responsibly. Perhaps, there is a need to slow down and relook the questions we ask and discuss. As Rajendran writes, “Let’s not be a vulture for details.”

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What do we really need to know?

Dhanya Rajendran of The News Minute posted this online. With her permission, we are cross-posting most of her note, with a link to the original. She raises important questions about how much we need to know in the interests of justice, and where our interest crosses over into idle and hurtful curiosity.

Enough is enough! 

by Dhanya Rajendran

Been reading a lot of posts after the sexual assault and murder of a child in Chennai and the actor’s abduction and case of rape in Kochi…

Questions are being asked about why media splashed the actor’s name and details. I agree. Why could most of these journalists not have asked a simple question to the police: ‘What are the sections? Can we use her name?’. They would have got the answer ‘No’ from the investigators. ( But the cops did give her name away and not the IPC sections. So maybe initially some journos did not know how grave it was). To continue with mentioning her name is highly unethical.

But the same question should be asked to the public too. Over the past few weeks, I have seen many hashtags and people sharing pictures of three minor victims in Tamil Nadu. The Ariyalur gangrape victim, the 7-year-old sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbor in Chennai and now the latest victim, a 3-year old allegedly killed by a woman neighbor.

When I started out as a journalist with Times Now, I remember an air hostess had been killed by her boyfriend and he later committed suicide. My office wanted me to get her parents’ reaction, and I said no.

I was high on ethics and I refused. But soon, work compulsions made me another kind of journalist. I would compulsively dig out details of crimes. Though my intention was always to get the culprit booked, the means to achieve that goal were questionable.

After around 6 years in Times Now, I covered a big case in Bangalore. A man with considerable influence was accused of raping his daughter. Though the police knew where he was, they could not arrest him. Many of us were following the story like crazy. As we dug out detail after detail about the case, there was also an element of competition amongst reporters on who will nail the guy with ‘hard facts’.

Two prominent newspapers then got the child’s medical record, I too did. They splashed it on the front page. TV channels of course would not mention graphic stuff on their tickers, so we were a bit restrained. I called the man’s wife (the complainant) and told her that she can be relieved now as the medical report was out and there was no way her husband could escape.

Her reply is still etched in my brain.

She asked me.”What use is it of, Dhanya? Why should the world know what exactly happened to her? And there is Google.Google will never allow my child to forget that her vagina and anus were injured.”

And then it struck me. In our pursuit to assist in the case, in our pursuit to make sure culprits are caught, we forget the victim, the survivor or their family.

Why should we know the sordid details of a crime? Why should we know who did exactly what?

Does the fact that a 7 year old was sexually assaulted and killed by a neighbour not outrage you? Why should you or I know HOW he assaulted her?

Does the fact that a three-year-old was killed by a neighbour and dumped in a garbage van not outrage you? Do you need to SEE pictures of that hapless child’s dead body to make you feel real outrage?

Does the fact that a young actor whose smiles have made us all happy was taken around in a car and assaulted not outrage you? Why should we be told what EXACTLY was done to her?

Yes, some cases get more highlighted than others. It depends on the place, time and the news cycle, unfortunately.

But let’s not be vultures for details. All of us.

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How not to report on rape

Manisha Pande, Learn How Not To Report On Rape From TOI,, February 20, 2017.

The original post has an illustration of edits on the story that are a great illustration of how many ways a report can go wrong. This is reinforced by the text which is dissected to point to a series of missteps.

This morning, the Big Four – The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Hindu – reported on an alleged case of rape in their Delhi editions.

Notable among these was TOI’s report, because it works as an excellent primer on how not to report on rape. From unwarranted details to victim-shaming, TOI checked all the boxes of callous reporting on violence against women.


The only thing that can be worse than an alleged case of rape being committed in Delhi’s most well-frequented, heavily-patrolled areas is the fact that one of India’s oldest newspapers can’t seem to tell the difference between reporting and victim shaming.

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How to report rape, and how not to report it as well

Sameera Khan, journalist, communications teacher and Friend of Prajnya, has written this piece for the TV show ‘Satyameva Jayate’ on how to report rape. We copy and paste it here for wider access, but the original is posted here.  Do visit this infographic for an illustration on how not to report–it’s very good. And you can watch Sameera here.


How to sensitively report rape and sexual assault

What journalists write and broadcast in the media impacts the general public’s understanding of rape and sexual assault. Therefore, it is crucial that the reportage be done in a manner that protects the identity of the survivor, gives out accurate facts, and treats the incident with sensitivity. Here are a few guidelines that we have prepared in consultation with journalist and writer Sameera Khan.

Choose your words carefully

  • The use of ‘survivor of sexual assault’ is favoured over ‘victim’.
  • Don’t make the act seem less grave by using ‘had sex with’ instead of ‘raped’, or ‘fondled’ instead of ‘molested’.
  • Don’t lead the reader towards making assumptions about the survivor by using adjectives like ‘pitiful’ and ‘helpless’.
  • Get the facts of the case right—don’t refer to the ‘accused’ as the ‘convicted’ or vice-versa. This could affect the case adversely.

Choose your writing style carefully

  • Reporting on rape and sexual assault calls for the use of the active voice.
  • Say that ‘XYZ raped her’ or ‘XYZ assaulted her’ instead of saying ‘She was raped’ or ‘She was assaulted’.
  • Shift the focus to the accused instead of the survivor.

Choose your tone carefully

  • Do not speak to the survivor, her family or the general public in a moralizing tone.
  • Do not use lines such as ‘Women should only wear saris, says a city official’ and ‘Women should not go out after 8 pm, says a local politician’ matter-of-factly. Views such as these must be questioned.
  • Journalists should abstain from providing an opinion about the survivor based on where the incident took place (for e.g., a bar), what the survivor was wearing at the time, or what time of the day it was.

Choose the details you need to disclose

  • The survivor’s name, address and details about her family should never be disclosed.
  • No indirect mention should be made that might reveal the identity of the survivor. The colour of her hair, the places she frequents, the area she lives in, the vehicle she rides, the number of siblings she has, whether she has a boyfriend or not—all of these are just a few examples and such details in a report are absolutely irrelevant and unnecessary.
  • No details about the family of the accused should be shared if they are not relevant to the investigation.

Choose and treat your sources with caution and quote them carefully

  • Do not write a story from the perspective of a single source.
  • When looking for quotes, speak only with those experts who are qualified to comment on the subject.
  • Ask the police to substantiate the charges against the accused instead of quoting lines from a conversation with a police officer.
  • Do not assume what your sources feel or would want to say. Do not carry lines such as ‘We can assume the police are in a tight spot’ or ‘It can be said the doctors need some more time to comment on the incident’.

Choose the focus of your story

  • A few days after the incident, focus on the bigger picture with follow-up stories, though with due sensitivity.
  • If an incident happens in the morning or the afternoon, comment on how sexual violence is not limited to a particular time instead of commenting on what the survivor or accused was doing at that time.
  • If an incident happens in a public place, comment on increasing the safety of citizens in public places instead of commenting on what the survivor was doing there.
  • Do not feed public fears and myths. Instead, provide the general public a lens with which it can see the larger picture and the seriousness of the crime.

Understand the need for confidentiality and privacy

  • Disclosing only necessary details helps protect the survivor’s, witnesses’ and their family’s identity.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, harass the survivor, witness or their families with repeated phone calls or visits to their homes without their consent.
  • If a journalist discloses the identity of the survivor in any manner, he or she can be jailed for a period of 2 years and fined.
  • The Press Council of India or News Broadcasters Association can also take action against the journalist.

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“..treat your sources like humans…” and other tips for reporting sexual violence carries a post linking to two others that discuss how to report gender violence.

Jessica Valenti, How to Write About Rape: Rules for Journalists, The Nation, October 25, 2013.

“—When an adult is charged with assaulting a minor or someone is someone is accused of assaulting an unconscious person, don’t refer to the crime as “sex with a child” or “sex with an unconscious person.” Call it rape—because that’s what it is . . .

—If you find yourself writing or editing a sentence that describes what a rape victim wore, the kind of makeup she had on or that she acted “older than her age” (I’m looking at you, New York Times)—stop it . . .

—If the victim you are reporting about comes from a marginalized community—if they are queer, trans, poor, disabled, an immigrant, a person of color or a sex worker—take extra care that the pernicious stereotypes that surround that community do not impact your piece . . .

—If you run a story exploring the reasons why rape happens, focus on the perpetrator, not the victim’s behavior. Because despite what Emily Yoffe writes, the common denominator in most rapes is not young women drinking, the common denominator is rapists.”

Annie Clark, “Did Your Blood Splatter or Pour?” and Other Media Mistakes: Interviewing a Survivor of Sexual Assault, Huff Post College, September 26, 2013.

“First piece of advice: If you want to report on human-interest stories, at least can treat your sources like humans…

1. Do your homework…

2. If you get past those initial 30 seconds (congrats!), make your source comfortable by stating that the individual can share as much or as little information the individual wants…

3. Use some old-fashioned common sense…

4. Do not blame the victim. Ever. Period. If you don’t know what victim blaming is, please see #1.

5. With phone interviews, do not call any survivor ten, hell three, times or more in an hour. Ditto with Facebooking, texting, tweeting and emailing. That’s called cyber-stalking.

6. With live or in-person interviews, please be respectful of the fact that your sources are people (and often they are students) first…

7. Be respectful and knowledgeable of the time zone in which your source is located…

8. Pay attention to the story the survivor wants told and take that framing into consideration…  at the end of the day while these are your articles, these are our stories. (emphasis added).

9. Do not over-sensationalize…

10. Do not expect people to cry or to be a “poor victim.””

I’ve posted extracts because I think this information is really important. Please link to and read the original posts if your Internet connection permits.

Post-script: Another useful resource, this time related to video interviews by Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. This is based on two decades of training on best practices.

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NWMI on sensitising media professionals to gender issues

The Network of Women in Media, India, has identified areas of concern and challenges faced by journalists covering sensitive issues.

NWMI submission to Press Council committee inquiring into the rape of woman journalist

 “NWM, Mumbai, facilitated a discussion amongst women journalists as well as male and female photojournalists in Mumbai on August 24, 2013. The meeting discussed issues related to the safety of journalists, the difficulties faced by journalists, especially freelancers, in access and permissions for stories and assignments, the ethical transgressions in coverage of sensitive issues and the need for greater gender sensitisation and training of media professionals on gender-sensitive reporting. The meeting identified specific issues that cause particular concern.”

The issues include:

  1. Media coverage of gender issues, in particular sexual assault/rape
  2. Safety on the job: The need for training modules for journalists/photographers
  3. Harassment by policemen and private security personnel
  4. Gender sensitisation within media organisations
  5. Voluntary mentorship programme

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Media debate: Should the identity of rape victims be revealed?

On September 2, 2013, Bachi Karkaria wrote:

“My suggestion, offered with the utmost sensitivity, is this: reveal your identity and help cast aside the veil of misplaced disgrace. Follow the example of the spunky Shakti Mills girl who walked out of hospital with her face uncovered, though her family had taken the precaution of ensuring that the media was informed of her discharge a day later…

The purdah of anonymity is the accessory of disgrace. Jyoti Singh Pandey`s family went public with her real name after she passed away, thus restoring to `Nirbhaya` her identity as much as the admiration which a shamed country had bestowed on her. Our plucky Shakti Mills girl had declared from hospital itself that ‘rape is not the end of life’. We should help her grab hers back openly — not push her into a space more abandoned than the venue of her violation.”

Bachi Karkaria, Don’t make her lose her face, Times of India, September 2, 2013.

In response, Laxmi Murty has written in The Hoot:

In June this year, Suzette Jordan, 38, shed the title “Park Street case” and courageously claimed her identity as a woman who had been raped but was not willing to remain a victim. This process of “coming out” took place almost a year and a half after she had been gang-raped in a moving car in Park Street, Kolkata. She joins the ranks of feisty women like Bhanwari Devi, Suman Rani, Bilkis Banu and Soni Sori, who have been subjected to rape and sexual violence but are determined to break the silence and fight back. With the support of the women’s movement and civil rights activists who have stuck by them, these women chose to challenge the stigma of rape and have gone on to become the “face” of campaigns to end sexual violence against women.

In her disingenuous editorial page comment in the Times of India on 3 September, “Don’t make her lose face” Bachi Karkaria exhorts women who have been raped: “reveal your identity and help cast aside the veil of misplaced disgrace.” Ms Karkaria adds to the victim blaming by declaring: “It’s time the raped woman stopped allowing us to add insult to her physical and mental injury by doubly burdening her with shame.” It is cruel to even suggest that a raped woman has a choice in being further burdened with shame, when shame and stigma are societal burdens thrust upon her without her consent. The veil of shame around rape and other forms of sexual violence were not created by women, but by a culture that valorises sexual purity and celebrates violent masculinity as the norm.
A victim is “one who is harmed or injured”, and all women who have been subjected to sexual violence are victims of crime. However, it is on the strength of their tenacity and grit; with the continued support of family and friends and women’s organisations; with legal redress and access to justice that many victims are able to become survivors. Transformation cannot occur with replacing a term as Ms Karkaria seems to suggest – there needs to be not only a change in mind-sets, but in support structures for victims to challenge impunity. Merely by employing the term ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’, while encouraging reporters to go forth and rake in lascivious details of the acts of sexual violence, extent of injuries or medication being prescribed, the media is not doing a public service or furthering the ends of justice for the victim. Ms Karkaria’s post-facto justification of the TOI’s deplorable coverage by conveniently employing feminist metaphors rings rather hollow. In fact, it is the “card carrying feminists” she derides who have been consistently spearheading campaigns to end sexual violence, through street protests, advocacy and law reform, and ending stigma around rape has been one of the fulcrums of these campaigns.
Undoubtedly, the strictures – both legal and in media ethics – against revealing the name or any identifying details of those who have been subjected to rape or other forms of sexual violence emanate from notions of honour and shame not only of the individual woman but also of the family and community. Stigma is also linked with the loss of virginity and the high premium in Indian society placed on this tiny membrane. However, they also emanate, it must be remembered, from notions of privacy and confidentiality and the creation of a space to heal with dignity, free from the label of “rape victim”. Victims of violent crimes deserve to be allowed to recuperate in every way possible – medical, emotional, psychological and at their workplace. They need to be left in peace, to recover from trauma – both of the rape itself, and the difficult journey to give evidence and stand witness. This is simply not possible with a prying media trying to lap up any tiny detail that would give a new angle to their stories. The media must also be alert to instances where their zeal to outwit their competitors and publish details, such as photographs and statements, or broadcast on-camera testimonies could in fact prejudice the legal case.
Cases of child victims require all the more sensitive handling, as they are in no position to intervene in matters of the media or the criminal justice system. Some issues have special implications when it comes to children. For example, in cases of incest, naming the alleged perpetrator almost directly reveals the identity of the child. While saying that the perpetrators must be named and shamed, in these cases, women’s organisations have had to review their strategies of public pressure on high-profile child abusers, as the publicity could back-fire on the abused child, severely impeding her or his road to recovery and rehabilitation.
Currently, there is a well-defined legal position on the question of disclosing the identity of victims of sexual crimes. According to Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, “Whoever prints or publishes the name or any matter which may make known the identity of any person against whom an offence under section 376, section 376A, section 376B, section 376C or section 376D is alleged or found to have been committed (hereafter in this section referred to as the victim) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.” Thus, the IPC prohibits the disclosure, not only of the victim’s name, but also of facts that could lead to the identification of the victim, such as the place of residence, identifying or naming the victim’s family or friends, university, or work details. This covers dead, minor victims and those with unstable minds. Even if the name is to be disclosed for welfare or legal reasons, this must be done in writing, only to the appropriate government authority, which does not include the media. The only exceptions are when identities are revealed to the police, or by, or with the authorisation in writing of, the victim; or where the victim is dead or minor or of unsound mind, by, or with the authorisation in writing of, the next- of- kin of the victim. One newspaper, The Hindu, desisted from publishing the name of the young woman who was gang-raped in Delhi in December, even though other publications had begun publishing her name after her father revealed her identity and also expressed the family’s desire to have the new law on sexual offences to be named after her. They did not have the written permission from her next-of-kin, said a statement by the editor.
Court proceedings also fall under the protection of the law in terms of identity disclosure. The same section says, “Whoever prints or publishes any matter in relation to any proceeding before a court with respect to an offence referred to in sub- section (1) [i.e. sexual crimes] without the previous permission of such court shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years and shall also be liable to fine.”  The printing or publication of the judgment of any High Court or the Supreme Court however does not amount to an offence within the meaning of this section.
Clearly, several publications have violated the law of the land by publishing identifying markers of the survivor of the Shakti Mills incident, and it is equally evident that these details did not drop into their laps by chance. Reporters were let loose to aggressively seek out anyone willing (or even not so willing) to talk and extract information in desperate attempts at one-upmanship. Why else would reporters swoop down on the locality where the young woman lives and speak to her neighbours or security guards? Why else would they climb on to the window of her hospital room? The larger back-drop of the race for TRPs and the market-driven news industry cannot be ignored while commenting on the flouting of law or lack of media ethics, since the Norms of Journalistic Conduct issued by the Press Council of India (2010) are also unequivocal on the issue of revealing identity. With such clear laws and guidelines in place, media houses must be held accountable for any violations, no matter what their purported motive.
Names are emotive, and undoubtedly laden with potential for compassion and action. It is not surprising that the unknown physio-therapy student, whose rape and murder in Delhi last December prompted large-scale agitations, soon was given names – even the pseudonyms ‘Nirbhaya’ and ‘Damini’ became symbols of protest. Yet, the process of privacy and disclosure is complex and must not be reduced to a binary of brave vs cowardly. Often, the drive for justice obviates concerns of privacy, especially in rural settings or close communities where privacy is at premium. Bhanwari Devi for example, has continued to live in the village where she was gang-raped by upper caste men more than 20 years ago. She does not have the luxury of confidentiality, as she was boycotted by her own community for daring to fight the case, and even single trip she made for a court hearing was open knowledge and the subject of taunting.
When and how a woman chooses to reveal her identity is a product of complex factors. Revealing her own identity can be an empowering process and one that contributes to furthering justice and ending impunity of perpetrators. It takes immense courage to stand up and fight, but the decision must remain hers, not the media’s.
Laxmi Murthy, Rape victim’s identity: Disclosure for whom? The Hoot, September 4, 2013.
(The article is copy-posted here as a “mirror” and not a way to take away credit from The Hoot. This blog is intended to be a resource for journalists covering sexual and gender-based violence.)

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