Sowetan’s article “Cops rescue children from farm” (27/05/08, p. 4) about children who were allegedly recruited to work at a bean farm in Mpumalanga over the March school holidays is one to get mad about. The article makes an inadequate attempt at protecting the children’s identities and fails to report that the use of child labour is a criminal offence and a violation of children’s rights.
While it is important for the media to bring attention to exploitative practices involving children,Sowetan, in its coverage of this story, missed some important points and failed to adhere to some basic ethical and legal principals which govern reporting on children.
The focus of the article is the pay and conditions that the children were subjected to, and how these were in contravention of what the farmer had promised them.
The article should have made clear that the farmer, by employing the children – regardless of any conditions – committed an offence and violated the Constitutional rights of the children . Section 43 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act makes it clear that it is a criminal offence to employ a child under the age of 15, (except if the person has a permit from the Department to employ children in the performing arts) and to employ children aged 15 to 18 to do work which is “inappropriate for a person of that age” and which places at risk “the child’s well being, education, physical or mental health, or spiritual, moral or social development”.
The article and accompanying photo fails to protect the identities of the children involved. In the article, names are provided, and in the photo, the faces of the children remain identifiable, as the strips used to cover their eyes are inadequate.
Failing to protect the identities of the children is not only unethical and a violation of their dignity but is in contravention of Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977 (Act 51 of 1977):
“No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals of 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”.
It is unclear what actions, if any, are being taken against the farmer, but given that a criminal offence has been committed, which the children are witness to, their identities should have been protected.
Previously MMP and MAD OAT have highlighted the inadequacy of the media’s use of black strips to cover only children’s eyes in photographs, in an apparent attempt to protect their identities (UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project, 2003  and MAD OAT, 2007, “Not enough effort made to protect children’s identities”).
Failure to adequately protect the identities of children, at the expense of their rights, welfare, and interests, sadly seems to be a repeated practice of Sowetan in recent times .
MMP states again: black strips over eyes are not enough to protect a person’s identity.
There are a number of creative means that Sowetan could have used to personalise the story, while protecting the identities of the children. Examples, such as showing only the shadows of the children or the photographing them with their backs to the camera, have been previously highlighted and commended by MAD OAT for good practice (e.g. “Keeping vulnerable children on the agenda”, and “Quality photography in Beeld shows respect for those involved”).
Sowetan failed to use creative alternatives which would have protected the children’s identities, and, in the process, their dignities.
Naming the children in the article invalidates any apparent (albeit inadequate) effort to conceal the visual identities of the children, and does not add any value to the story.
Children form the most vulnerable sector of society and as such are afforded special protection through instruments such as, the The Bill of Rights of the Constitution of South Africa (1996) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1989) which South Africa is signatory to.
This article failed to protect the children by revealing their identities and missed an opportunity to create awareness amongst the public that child labour is not only exploitative, but is also illegal.
1. The Bill of Rights of the Constitution of South Africa (1996) specifies that children have rights “to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation; to be protected from exploitive labour practices; not to be required or permitted to perform work or services that are inappropriate for a person of that child’s age or place at risk the child’s well-being, education, physical or mental health or spiritual, moral or social development”. The conditions which the children were allegedly subjected to, including exploitative labour, working long hours, and having to miss school, amount to violations of these constitutional rights, as well as the right to education.
2. UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project. 2003. All Sides of the story. Reporting on children: A journalist’s handbook, p. 54.
3. For example, in “This girl, 4, was abused by her celebrity father” (12/04/05, p. 1) “[…] bust for child abuse”, (13/05/08,p. 1); “Kwaito star ‘can not be prosecuted’”, (14/05/08, p. 5); and “Double apology”, (19/05/08, p. 2) Sowetan revealed the identity of an abused child, either directly or indirectly. MMP spoke directly with Sowetan about its concerns after the first article appeared, and remains in discussion with Sowetan to address this issue.