Gossip and juicy stories about celebrities may entertain some, but the media need to be especially careful reporting where celebrity’s children are involved Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is concerned about four stories recently published in Sowetan about two male celebrities who failed to pay maintenance for their children ( “[ ] in maintenance row”, 23/04/09, p. 31 ; “Ex-lover drops bombshell against actor”, 13/05/09, p. 3; “Bounced out of the high life”, 15/05/09, p. 10; “Is ‘sick’ [ ] evading court?”, 19/05/09, p. 32) . In all four instances Sowetan is guilty of violating the rights to privacy and dignity of the children involved by publishing the details of their parents.
In each of the stories Sowetan identified the two celebrities by publishing their names and photographs as well as the names of the two mothers involved. In one of the stories (“Ex-lover drops bombshell against actor”, 13/05/09, p. 3) a small mug-shot of the mother was also included. By providing this information, the identity of the children is indirectly revealed .
The identity of a child cannot be revealed, directly or indirectly, in the media when his/her parents are involved in legal proceedings concerning maintenance. Sowetan is in clear violation of Section 36 of the Maintenance Act 99 of 1998 which states:
“No person shall publish in any manner whatsoever the name or address of any person under the age of 18 years who is or was involved in any proceedings at a maintenance enquiry or the name of his or her school or any other information likely to reveal the identity of that person.”
This section of the law serves to protect children from secondary abuse that might result from this kind of media exposure.
In addition to indirectly identifying the children, Sowetan detailed the alleged reasons why the two fathers could not meet the maintenance requirements , which ranged from paternity doubts, to debt, to hatred between the biological parents. Revealing these details, especially together with the identifying information, could cause harm to the children involved, including hurt, embarrassment, and victimisation by peers.
It appears from the tone of the news items that the purpose and impact was not advocacy for the children, or to raise awareness about the problem of fathers neglecting maintenance responsibilities, but rather to entertain readers through reporting on scandal.
Regardless of the purpose, MMA and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) maintain:
“The best interests of each child are to be protected over any other consideration, including advocacy over children’s issues and the promotion of children’s rights” (UNICEF Guidelines3)
There are better ways the media could raise awareness about the problem of fathers not paying maintenance which does not jeopardize children’s best interests. Protecting the privacy and best interests of children affected is a minimum requirement. Media could also look at maintenance issues from a broader socio-economic perspective and help the public to understand the problem comprehensively instead of pointing fingers at particular individuals .
It is important that at all times the interests and rights of children are considered and protected when publishing stories about celebrities who also happen to be parents to children under the age of 18. It might seem fun and interesting for the public to read about intimate details of public figures but the trauma and injury to dignity that their children go through in the process is unnecessary and must be avoided.
2 MMA has concealed names, faces, or details which may directly or indirectly reveal the identity of the children concerned.
3 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Date Unknown. “Ethical Guidelines: Principles for ethical reporting on children”