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Identifying children who are potential witnesses at criminal proceedings is in itself a crime!

23 June 2017

Two articles by Sowetan and IOL have been selected for a MAD1 by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) for not taking necessary precautions to protect the identity of the child witnesses involved.

I saw killer suck blood” (Sowetan, 12/04/2017, p.2) reports on a 21-year-old man who allegedly stabbed a five-year-old boy to death while the child’s siblings witnessed his gruesome murder. According to the article, the siblings were playing on a street in Soweto when a man suddenly appeared and chased after them. The man reportedly caught the boy and according to his nine-year-old sister, “started hitting him and then had him on the ground where he stomped on him and started stabbing him”. The sister also states that “[The man] then picked [the child] up and held him like a small baby and sucked blood from his neck”. The article reports that the suspect will soon appear in court under the charge of murder.

The article names the nine-year-old child and another 17-year-old who is also a sibling of the murdered child and a witness to the crime. The children are also indirectly identified through their mother who is named and pictured.

Another child witness is identified in “Girl, 4, watches as 7-year-old brother strangled” (IOL, 25/04/2017)  which reports on a seven-year-old boy who was strangled to death by a 29-year-old man. According to the article, the boy’s four-year-old sister witnessed the incident. It is reported that the children were visiting the man over the weekend in Durban when the incident occurred. The article reports that the man has been arrested and charged with murder.

The child’s sister is indirectly identified through her deceased brother whose photograph bears his name in the caption and accompanies the story. The children’s grandmother is also identified thereby indirectly identifying the surviving child.

Both these articles flouted the law and ethical standards of reporting by identifying children who are witnesses to crimes and in Sowetan’s case, going further and interviewing one of the children despite having stated that she was ‘distraught’ as a result of the incident.

The Criminal Procedure Act and the Code of Ethics and conduct from South African print and online media2  warn against this action. Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act for instance clearly states that “No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of the accused under the age of 18 years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.

Sowetan also contravened its own editorial policy by identifying the children and interviewing one of them. The policy states that “We undertake to consider the consequences of our reporting to children, and to take steps, where appropriate, to minimise the harm … We will always protect the identities of children who have … been a witness to a crime. We will also avoid questions or comments that could expose children to … grief or danger, or cause them to relive any trauma they may have experienced.”

Interviewing a child shortly after a traumatic incident subjects them to further trauma as they have to relive the experience through the retelling of the story. Reliving a traumatic experience lengthens the healing process therefore, Sowetan should have refrained from this.

Both media erred in identifying the children who are potential witnesses at criminal proceedings. This compromised the children’s safety as it put them at risk of being harmed or intimidated by the perpetrators. MMA urges Sowetan and IOL to ensure that when reporting on children, their privacy and best interests are a number one priority.  We strongly urge IOL to immediately remove the identity of the children its website and to instead use a pseudonym.

By Msizi Mzolo


MADs refer to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage
http://www.presscouncil.org.za/ContentPage?code=PRESSCODE

IOL has since withdrawn the identities of the children from their article on the website and shown interest in having MMA conduct a training session with them. Engagement on the training is on-going.

The following engagement regarding the commentary took place between the IOL Editor and MMA

IOL EDITOR

Thanks for the feedback. I have removed all names and the picture from the story.

MMA

Thank you for withdrawing the names and picture from the article on the website. We look forward to engaging more with you to protect children in the media.