The article,Police search for 17-year-old teen suspected of killing his father published by SowetanLIVE (08/05/2020) has been selected as a MAD[1] by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) for  falling short of the ethical and legal principles of reporting on children. The story indirectly identifies the child involved.

The article is about a 17-year-old who is suspected of killing his father and setting the body alight. In the article, the deceased is named thereby indirectly indentifying the child as the two are close relations.  Although there was an attempt by SowetanLIVE to protect the identity of the child suspect (the child is not named, not even in the plea from the police to the public about his whereabouts), MMA is of the view that through naming the deceased father, it made it possible for people to make out the identity of the child suspect. Additionally, SowetanLIVE breached the provisions of both the Criminal Procedure Act and the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media.

Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act warns against the direct and indirect identification of children who are accused of crime, are victims or are witnesses at criminal proceedings. This Section was ruled by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2018 to include protection to victims of crime.

Furthermore, Clause 8.1 of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media clearly states that the media shall, in the spirit of applying the best interests of the child, “Exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children.” The Section of the Code goes on to state, “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.”

The article does not state whether informed consent was obtained from anyone to identify the child. MMA argues though that even where consent is obtained, the media should exercise its duty of acting in the child’s best interest by protecting the child. This includes not identifying the child even where the parents, guardians and the child have given permission.

It is common for a child to be named in such instances with the argument of public interest. MMA recognises what SowetanLIVE was seemingly trying to achieve by attempting to strike a balance between child best interest and public interest in the matter. However, the journalist should have paid extra attention and exercised caution with wording. Instead of indicating that the child is a suspect to the crime, the journalist should have, for instance, written that the child is being sought for questioning to help with the case.

Caution on wording has the potential to help prevent this child from being harmed for retribution etc as the public might see him as guilty of having committed the crime even before the conclusion of criminal proceedings.

According to MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media, “special attention is to be paid to each child’s right to privacy and confidentiality, to have their opinions heard, to participate in decisions affecting them and to be protected from harm and retribution, even potential harm and retribution”.

MMA would like to urge SowetanLIVE to ensure that children’s rights and best interests are prioritised in all its reporting and to find better ways to tell the stories without compromising the safety and/or wellbeing of any child. We call on SowetanLIVE and other media to be extra cautious when reporting on children suspected of committing crimes.

By Ntsako Manganyi

[1] MADs are given to journalists who have irresponsibly reported on children and compromised the children’s best interest