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Crime: Worth revealing children’s identities for? We think not

30 March 2017

This week Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD1  to News24 and The New Age for publishing articles on crime against children in which the children were directly identified thereby potentially putting them at risk of further harm.

The first story entitled “‘Mommy, they shot me’, girl, 5, says after gang shooting” ( News24, 16/02/2017) tells of a five-year-old girl who was shot in the back in what is thought to be from a gang-related stand-off in Hanover Park Cape Town. It recounts how she was playing in the park when the shooting broke out and was caught in the crossfire when she attempted to flee the scene. The child is reported to have spent three weeks recovering from her injuries in a local hospital and is now preparing for a three-month stint at a rehabilitation centre. The article details all of her injuries, which include damage to her spine, kidneys and intestines, as well as highlights the psychological and emotional trauma she has suffered from the incident. This information is all offered through a lengthy interview with her mother. A similar article covering the same details of the story was also found in The New Age newspaper and is also posted on the publication’s website under the title “Shot girl distraught” (17/02/2016, p. 6).
 
The second article, “Robbers stab autistic boy 5 times”, (16/02/2017) describes how an eight-year-old boy was stabbed multiple times during a robbery at his home in Springs, Johannesburg. The article reports that the boy and his mother were in the garden when two men appeared armed with knives and forced the pair into the house. A police spokesperson alleges in the article that the robbers could have stabbed the boy to force his mother to hand over any money she had, which at the time was only R150. In the story, the mother is interviewed and she describes the boy’s physical injuries and the emotional distress he has suffered.

The third article follows a story about six children who were run over in separate hit-and-run incidents but by the same car on the same day in Stilfontein, Johannesburg. The article titled “Children traumatized after bakkie ‘deliberately’ hits them”(16/02/2017) describes how a driver allegedly drove into children in three different instances, even to the point of U-turning and swerving to hit them before driving off. The local neighbourhood watch group alerted the police to the driver’s whereabouts and he was arrested at a house in the area.  The journalist interviews the guardians of three of the children who were injured and recounts how each child was hit and the injuries that they each sustained.

MMA would like to emphasise the respect we have for all four journalists and the efforts they have made in sharing some of the experiences endured by children at the hands of criminals. Crime is a perpetual and systemic issue facing South Africans. It is therefore absolutely critical that our media continue to report on this serious and recurring problem in order to hold those in charge to account.

We however have some concerns regarding the ethics of the coverage, particularly with the subjects of these stories all being younger than 18 years of age. Firstly, in all four stories the children involved were directly identified. In the first three stories, both the five-year-old girl and the eight-year-old boy and both of their respective mothers were named. All these three articles except for the one by The New Age were accompanied by photographs of the children’s faces, where no attempt was made to conceal their identities. In the fourth story, although there were no photographs of the children, three of the six victims were identified alongside the names of their respective guardians.
Revealing the identities of these children is incredibly problematic as each of them were both victims as well as potential witnesses of the criminal events that took place. Here, News24 and The New Age should have ensured the full protection of the children’s identities not only to prevent any further emotional trauma that may come from being in the media spotlight under such circumstances, but also to avoid any potential retaliation from the criminals themselves. The first three articles report that no arrests had been made which means that the criminals are still or could still be at large. This opens up the possibility that those involved may return to the children either to intimidate them or to cause even further psychological or physical harm. This is not unlikely given the level of violence the perpetrators have already displayed in these stories.

It is for these reasons that Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedures Act2  states that “No person shall publish in any manner whatever any information which reveals or may reveal the identity…of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of eighteen years”. Equally, MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media3  emphasise that the identity of at-risk children should always be protected and this includes when “a child has been involved in a crime, either as a witness, victim or perpetrator”. Both media houses grossly violated this Act by identifying the children involved in the stories.

It is recognised the world over that children are a particularly vulnerable sector of our society and for that the Code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media4  (to which News24 subscribes) expressly states that “the media… shall therefore exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting on children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed, photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child), and a public interest is evident”. None of the articles state or indicate whether fully informed consent was obtained from the parties involved. We argue that even where consent is obtained, it is the journalists’ duty to exercise caution when it comes to revealing the identity of children especially in stories about crime. MMA believes the articles would have still had the same impact had the identities of the children been withheld.

We would therefore urge journalists to continue to report on these child-related issues, but also to take the most extreme precautions in their reporting, particularly when the reporting may put the children in any danger or further harm. We also urge both media to immediately withdraw the children’s identities as well as those of their guardians from their websites and rather use pseudonyms and sufficiently blur or block their faces on all applicable accompanying photographs. An explanation that supports this decision should also be provided.

We encourage both media to protect children’s identities in subsequent reporting.

By Sarah Findlay

1.MADs refer to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage
2.Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act retrieved from: http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/acts/1977-051.pdf
3.http://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/images/uploads/mma_editorial_guideline.pdf
4.http://www.presscouncil.org.za/ContentPage?code=PRESSCODE

The following exchange took place between News24 and MMA with regard to the commentary;

News24

With regards to these stories:

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/mommy-they-shot-me-girl-5-says-after-gang-shooting-20170215

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/robbers-stab-autistic-boy-5-times-20170216

http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/children-traumatised-after-bakkie-deliberately-hits-them-20170216

Two of the stories are pieces we translated from Netwerk24. I have CCed the relevant people from Netwerk in this mail, as I cannot speak on the content of the stories.

With the Hanover Park story – We feel that the levels of gang violence in the Cape Flats has reached a point where readers need to be aware of the collateral damage inflicted on ordinary people caught in the crossfire. When a 5-year-old is shot, it highlights the suffering inflicted on innocent people, especially children.

We did our due diligence and received permission from the child’s mother.

While we understand that sometimes there are circumstances that necessitate protecting the identity of a child, it is also possible that there are circumstances where (with permission with parents or guardians) a child’s story, especially one like this, can spur people on to make a difference in a community.

These are some of the nuances we need to discuss and guide each other on.

I previously expressed interest in us meeting with MMA to discuss the intricacies of reporting of children, especially when permission is granted by parents or guardians.

Would some time in April be best?

MMA

Thank you for responding to our commentary.

We acknowledge and appreciate your efforts to highlight crime at the Cape Flats and agree with you that indeed readers need to be made aware of the levels of crime in the area. However, we argue that this should not come at the expense of children involved. The victims who may turn witnesses at criminal proceedings need special protection in stories about crime because as mentioned in the commentary, the perpetrator or anybody for that matter, might find them to inflict more harm in order to intimidate or threaten them.

With regards to obtaining permission from the child’s mother to identity the child, we strongly believe that the journalist should have the child’s best interests at heart when gauging whether to identify the child even after the parent/guardian has given permission. In this instance, and for the reasons mentioned above, it was clearly not in the best interests of the child to be identified, or her mother for that matter as revealing the mother’s identity indirectly identifies her. It is also the journalist’s duty to educate those involved in the story about all the consequences of having their identities revealed as often times, people just want to have their story told without fully understanding the potential harm that could befall them.

We emphasise that the story could have still had the same impact had it been told with pseudonyms to protect the child’s identity. We believe the change you seek from community members could have still been possible had this been so. The child’s best interest should be a primary concern in these matters. This is supported by the Bill of Rights Section 28 (2) which states, “The child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”

We would still request that you still seek to protect the children’s identities and shield them from further harm. The more the stories continue to exist online in their current form, the more potential risk the children are exposed to whether they turn witnesses at criminal proceedings or not.

As indicated before, we would be happy to conduct a training on reporting on children in the media and are even happier that you have expressed interest in this. The Coordinator responsible for the training who is also a practicing attorney will get in touch with you to set this up but April is alright with us. In the meantime, please find resources on reporting on children on our websites (http://mma-ecm.co.za/ethical-guidelines/ and http://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/index.php).

We look forward to reading more stories where children are protected.


MMA continues to engage with News24 on this matter and training for the media house has been offered.