A father gives his children energy drinks laced with poison, three of them die, one is critically ill in hospital and one survives as he/she didn’t consume the drink. Rightfully, we are all outraged and confused and left with the question; what would possess a man to commit such a heinous act of violence against his own flesh and blood?

Perhaps it is still too early to get to the bottom of what pushed this man to kill or attempt to kill his children as police are still investigating. What is clear is that the media need to report this story but at the same time protect the two surviving children from further unnecessary harm that emanate from their story being in the public eye.

In reporting the story, some of our most credible media got this wrong. It boggles the mind as to why various media thought it would be okay to name and identify the children who died as well as the surviving children. This was clearly not in the best interest of the two children who still must live with the trauma of the incident but also have to deal with their privacy being violated.

What were the journalists thinking? Such a traumatic scenario is delicate and it is surprising that the ethical lens was seemingly completely ignored. What public interest is there in revealing the name and identities of those involved especially when balanced against the best interest of the two child survivors who are not only victims but also potential eyewitnesses to the crime and, potential witnesses at criminal proceedings. What news value is added by publishing the names and/or pictures of the father or their mother or the children whether they survived or not?  Do audiences need to see an image of an eight-year-old to appreciate the loss of life?

Imagine being one of the children who survived, knowing that your father is accused of killing your siblings, and this is in the public eye with your privacy completely disregarded. How is this in the best interest of these two siblings?

The following are examples of media reports that violated the rights to privacy of the children involved

  • Media24 published the names and pictures of the three children who died thereby indirectly identifying the two children who survived.[1]
  • The Star named the three children that died as well as the child who is in hospital.[2]
  • TimesLIVE like The Star, named all the three deceased children and the hospitalised child.[3]
  • Sunday World named all the family members and published a picture of the mother in tears.[4]
  • The Citizen named the three deceased children.[5]
  • SABC News named all the children that died as well as revealing the family name.[6]
  • EWN on Twitter published the pictures and names of the children who died.[7]
  • eNCA named all the three deceased children and revealed their family name.  The two children who survived are also named in the report.[8]

All the above-mentioned media have in the past shown exemplary reporting around violence against children with sensitivity, care and with due regard for the best interest of the children involved. How and why did they get this one wrong?

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) would like to urge the media to adhere to the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media or where applicable, their own internal editorial policies because the principles enshrined in them set the highest standards that readers and audiences expect the media to adhere to. These standards also guarantee that survivors of such crimes will always have protection in terms of their rights to dignity and privacy.

  • “The media shall exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about 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,” Clause 8.1.1 of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media.
  • “Whenever the identity of a child is disclosed, whether pictorially or in print –
  • “The statutory restrictions on the naming or identification of children shall be observed and adhered to.
  • “The interests of the privacy and the reputation of the child shall be considered and, where necessary, protected.
  • “Even if the parent or guardian consents to disclosure of identity of a child, Independent Online shall exercise a cautious discretion, if it may be harmful to the child to publish the identity of the child,” respectively, Clauses 5.3, 5.3.2, 5.3.2 and 5.3.4 of the Independent Online’s Press Code.
  • “The SABC has a duty to uphold the Bill of Rights and to respect the dignity and private lives of individuals. For this reason and at all times SABC journalists and all news staff should respect individuals’ right to privacy, and not violate such privacy unless it is justifiable and in the public interest,” Clause 5.13.2  of theSABC Editorial Policy.

Leaving aside the best interest of the child, if adhering to media’s own editorial policies or the Press Code was optional, it still begs the question as to why the media failed to obey the law.  The media need to think about the surviving children who potentially could be witnesses in pending criminal proceedings. Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which was ruled by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2018 in the case Centre for Child Law & others v Media 24 Limited & others (871/17)[9] states the following,

“No person shall publish in any manner whenever any information which reveals or may reveal the identity of an accused under the age of 18 years or of a victim or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.” 

To be clear, Media Monitoring Africa is not suggesting the media should not have reported the story. We agree there is a public interest to continue reporting on this story, for example addressing questions such as;

  • What caused this father to take such actions?
  • How common are such crimes against children?
  • Is it possible that the man has some sort of mental illness?
  • Who is likely to commit such a crime against their own child?
  • Can crimes like these be prevented and what are the early-warning signs the public should be aware of?
  • What was the responsibility of all the duty bearers to the children to prevent this crime?
  • What role did the state play or fail to play?

To our media, we ask them to please keep reporting on this particular developing story that is very important, but we ask that media do this with care and sensitivity. For example, when eNCA[10] reported the story on 27th May, 2022, they did not violate the privacy of the surviving children through direct or indirect identification. The same can be said for Daily Sun[11] and EWN[12] in some of their other reports.

Additionally, for media that used pictures of the children they could have blurred the identities of the children and in some cases the identity of the mother should have been concealed.  Alternatively, media did not need to use any pictures of the family at all as the story would still have been compelling.

We request the media (whether listed here or not) that named or pictured any of the family members in their reporting to remove all information that may directly or indirectly identify the two surviving children and, alert their audiences as to why they have done so.  Many media have made it common practice to use pseudonyms for victims and survivors of violence.

Note: Every week, the MMA team reviews news reports relating to children for examples of good and bad practice in reporting. The goal is to keep working with media to improve the portrayal, representation and participation of children in the news. With this particular story so many of our media directly or indirectly identified the children when they shouldn’t have. A copy of the piece was sent to each of the editors to ask them to rectify their error. This review was published here for greater awareness and for the general public to understand what the media needs to do to protect children from further harm.  

By George Kalu

Capacity Development Manager

Media Monitoring Africa

[1] Media24, 28/05/2022, Family wants answers after father allegedly gave children poison-laced energy drinks

[2] The Star, 30/05/2022, Poison killer father family calls for justice

[3] TimesLIVE, 27/05/2022, Dad who allegedly poisoned his children and the family dog ‘does not know what came over him’

[4] Sunday World, 29/05/2022, ‘I want nothing to do with him –my kids are dead because of him’

[5] The Citizen, 30/05/2022, Family prepares to bury three brothers who died after consuming ‘energy drinks’

[6] SABC News, 27/05/2022, Three brothers die at school after allegedly consuming energy drink

[7] @ewnreporter

[8] eNCA, 27/05/2022, [Name withheld] family reeling after siblings’ deaths

[9] https://www.supremecourtofappeal.org.za/index.php/judgements/download/3-judgments-2018/386-media-summary-centre-for-child-law-others-v-media-24-limited-others-871-17-2018-zasca-140-28-september-2018

[10] eNCA, 27/05/2022, Four boys allegedly poisoned by their father

[11] Daily Sun, 27/05/2022, Dad allegedly poisoned and killed three of his kids!)

[12] EWN, 26/05/2022, Three brothers dead, fourth critical after energy drink given to them by father

All the media in this commentary were engaged via email and/or phone call. Some responded saying they would look into the matter but were never heard from again. Others completely ignored the phone calls and emails. A few though did respond positively by withdrawing the direct and indirect identities of the children from their articles. The SABC and The Citizen newspaper were those media that withdrew identities.