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M&G neglects individual child’s best interests while reporting on children’s issue
3 March 2017
The role of investigative journalism focused on children’s issues cannot be understated. It is often a challenging task for journalists to bring these stories to the public’s attention in a manner that is informative and ethical. However, while reporting on how an issue affects a group of children is important, this should never be done at the expense of the individual child’s best interests.
It is for this reason that Mail & Guardian (M&G)’s “No hurry to probe French CAR troop accused of child rape” (27/01/2017-02/02/2017, p.20-21) has been selected for a MAD1.
The article highlights allegations of child abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) by French troops deployed to the country under Operation Sangaris. According to the article, when the forces were pulled out of the CAR in October last year, “they left in their wake numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault, some involving minors.”
The journalists who wrote the piece profile a young woman who was sexually abused by a French soldier. While she is now an adult, it is suggested that she was a minor at the time when the incident occurred. The minor reportedly fell pregnant and gave birth to a boy who, according to the report, is “light-skinned” and is referred to as “the Frenchman” by his neighbours. The boy is named in the article and is further indirectly identified through his mother (the young woman) who is named and pictured, and the grandmother who is also named.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) argues that more consideration ought to have been given to the potential consequences of identifying a child who is a product of sexual abuse. While this young girl’s story compels the reader to confront the slow wheels of justice for victims of sexual exploitation and the abuse of power by those who are meant to protect vulnerable communities particularly children in countries affected by war, it is told in such a way that it subjects the child in question to further stigma and humiliation.
By identifying the child, M&G violated the child’s right to privacy and dignity and neglected ethical codes of journalism practice. This includes the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media, which relies on the principle set out by Section 28 (2) of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution which states: “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”.
While it is unclear whether informed consent was sought from the mother of the child for the purposes of identifying him in the article, it is also necessary to bear in mind that children also have the right to be afforded their own opportunities to consent to appearing in the media. This should be done in accordance with their age and maturity, especially given the real implications such exposure may have on their lives.
The concern in this instance is that the child may have been too young to give consent. Furthermore, even if the mother of the child had consented to his identity being revealed, it is hard to see how this would have served in his best interests given the sensitive details around how he was conceived and the fact that, as previously mentioned, he has been labelled within his community. M&G should have therefore erred on the side of caution and minimised harm by avoiding publishing such details in the public domain along with the child’s identity.
MMA argues that there is a great responsibility on journalists to promote the dignity and privacy of their subjects especially in these instances. This stems from MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media2 which urge journalists to, “continuously evaluate the decision to name a child, always testing the value of the information against the harm caused to the child”.
Furthermore, this kind of reporting also ignores M&G’s own Editorial Code of Ethics which state, “We will take particular care to avoid harm to children. While it is important to seek out the views of children, we will not do anything that may expose them to abuse, discrimination, retribution, embarrassment or any other risk. We will make sure that we consult with a parent or guardian about any impact our reporting may have on the child”.
We urge M&G to avoid identifying children when it is not in their best interests and to seek to promote their privacy and dignity in stories of this nature.
By Ayabulela Poro
1A GLAD refers to an article where the rights and welfare of children have been promoted
2See MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media available at: http://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/index.php/resources/entry/editorial_guidelines_and_principles_on_reporting_on_children_in_the_media/
The following exchange took place between Mail & Guardian (M&G), African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) in response to the commentary;
Further to the complaint, it seems there are two issues that need to be addressed here.
Firstly, whether the mother, [*], had given consent for her and her child’s identities to be revealed. It is our understanding that this was indeed the case.
The second, arising from here, is the finding by MMA that it was not in the best interest of the child, [*], to have his identity revealed.
“The concern in this instance is that the child may have been too young to give consent. Furthermore, even if the mother of the child had consented to his identity being revealed, it is hard to see how this would have served in his best interests given the sensitive details around how he was conceived and the fact that, as previously mentioned, he has been labelled within his community. M&G should have therefore erred on the side of caution and minimised harm by avoiding publishing such details in the public domain along with the child’s identity.”
Accepting that the mother has consented for the identification of herself and her child, and that the community commonly refer to the child as ‘the Frenchman’, revealing the real lives impacted by the alleged sexual abuse and callous actions of the visiting French soldiers is critical to this story. With authorities for years seemingly trying to wish the abuse of their soldiers’ power away and thereby denying people with little recourse justice, the mother and child, specifically through their identification, are able to regain some agency in this regard.
From your conclusion and the facts at hand, you seem to assert our reasons for publishing the child’s name. I cannot see how you conclude that the article practically prejudices the child, as you seem to confusingly assert your argument by pointing to the fact that the child’s conception is well known in his community.
Our is decision is asserted by the notes you will receive from a_bahn shortly.
While we value your diligence in this regard and always welcome any engagement that would improve our reporting, we would appreciate further clarity on your finding, once you have had an opportunity to evaluate the input from ourselves and the journalists concerned.
The protection of our sources is an essential subject for us. All investigations we publish are done with respect to the witnesses and we do everything necessary ensure their protection. Thank you for your vigilance.
Here are some details that are important in order to understand the situation.
Concerning [*] and her child:
We had permission from [*] (she was major) and her mother [*] to tell the family’s story and give their names. It was important for them to do this, because [*] and her mother have filed a lawsuit and are afraid their case will be forgotten and that the French justice will forget them;
The case of the family is already known throughout the region – it is regrettable but it is like that, and therefore the paper publishing the story would not change anything. On the contrary, it allowed [*] to re-establish the truth about what happened to her (in place of the rumours that circulate in such cases and that stigmatize as much or more the family and the child – claiming that she was a prostitute, etc.);
When women who are victims of sexual violence have the courage to speak on their own – and often they are aware that others can not afford it – we believe that courage must be respected.
We are aware that in some cases persons consent to be cited without realising the implications. That is why, elsewhere in the article, we do not give the real names of people who nevertheless agreed. Because we feel that our investigators, who went there, judged their situation and could foresee the possible consequences of an article, and are in the best position to judge how to protect our sources. For the reasons outlined above, this did not seem to be the case with [*].
Moreover, it’s important to add:
– [*]’s mother was aware that we were interviewing her daughter – having agreed to be interviewed – who was also major at the time of the interview, respond to the questions and also to be photographed.
– That we proposed anonymity, but they refused. They are within their rights to do that as they were at that moment engaged in proceedings against the French army.
Thank you for your extensive response and for taking the time to engage us on this matter. It’s very important for us to obtain as much background information as we can to better understand the context within which editorial decisions are made including those instances where children are identified in news reports. It is clear from your feedback that these are not taken lightly and we have no doubt that, as you mentioned, the protection of your sources is a priority for you.
As you may be aware, it is often difficult to navigate the grey areas of ethics and as much as care is taken to ensure that harm is minimised, there are those blind spots that can sometimes go unnoticed in news reporting.
In your response, you state that consent was received from [*] (the mother of the child in question) and [*]’s mother (the child’s grandmother) as they both felt that it was “important for them to do this” since they had filed a lawsuit, “and are afraid their case will be forgotten and the French justice will forget them”. You also mention that you had proposed anonymity which they had refused and “that they are within their rights to do that as they were at that moment engaged in proceedings against the French army”.
Unfortunately, you seem to heavily rely on the fact that consent was obtained from the mother and grandmother of the child. There are two issues which we would like to reemphasise in this regard, the first being that the child could not and did not consent to his identity being revealed as he was too young. MMA’s position is that the child him/herself must provide informed consent, even where the parent/guardian has done so, and it must be demonstrably in his/her best interests. This position stems from a children’s rights perspective which supports children’s rights to express their views and have their views taken into account in matters concerning them. This is supported by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child1 as well the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child2 which South Africa has ratified. We would also refer you to MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media3 in this regard. These were developed with the input of children themselves, child rights experts and professional bodies such as the African Editors Forum.
Furthermore, given the absence of the child’s consent and in spite of that which was obtained from his mother and grandmother, the decision to identify the child was still not in his best interests. In your response you state, “The case of the family is already known throughout the region – it is regrettable but it is like that, and therefore the paper publishing the story would not change anything”. MMA strongly argues that in fact it would. Just because the case of the family is already known is not a justification for republishing or spreading that information further. Media are held to a higher standard and as such should exercise more responsibility to ensure that they act in an ethical manner and minimise harm. We would urge you to again consider MMA’s guidelines which challenge journalists to reflect on the value of publishing the child’s name (and in this case that of the family members) and ask, “What (did) identifying the child allow the journalist to tell the audience that they could not otherwise? How (did) naming the child allow the journalist to take the story into a deeper, more contextual level of reporting?”
In your response you also claim that by identifying [*], she had the opportunity to re-establish the truth and challenge stigma and claims of her being a prostitute. By excluding this information from the article, we feel you missed an opportunity to explicitly demonstrate how the decision to identify [*] was taken in this specific context and that by clearing her name she was also attempting to clear that of her child which could possibly justify naming him. This action would have served to show readers that identifying children in such sensitive stories is not standard practice but was warranted under the given circumstances.
We seem to be in agreement that while many vulnerable people in desperate positions may approach the media seeking to expose unimaginable injustices and abuses, the onus still lies on journalists and editors to use their discretion to identify them in news reporting. You state that elsewhere in the article you took this action and did not give the real names of people who insisted on being identified. We contend that this should have been the case with [*]’s family as well and note that the decision to identify them instead was inconsistent with your actions. Again, it seems an inordinate amount value was placed in the choice to name [*]’s family in the hope that, as you stated, they will not be forgotten. MMA argues that, in fact, concealing her identity would have still allowed the story to be told without stripping it of its essence only in a manner that promotes the dignity and privacy of [*]’s child. We have seen numerous examples of this kind of journalism including from the Mail and Guardian.
Lastly, MMA also strongly agrees that the courage of those who have been victims of violence and abuse and who wish to speak out must be respected and indeed promoted as this serves their fundamental right to freedom of expression and participation. However, we would like to remind you that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute and in this instance, should have been balanced against the best interests of the child.
We hope to find common ground on this issue.
1.See Article 13 of the Un Nations Convention on the Right of the Child: https://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf
2.See Article 7 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child: http://www.acerwc.org/download/the-charter-english/?wpdmdl=8410
3.See MMA’s Editorial Guideline and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media: http://mma-ecm.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/A5_MediaBooklet_Ed_GX_Final_24Apr-2014_FINALTOBEPRINTED.pdf
[*] Names have been withheld to protect the identities of those involved