Sunday Times came to the attention of Media Monitoring Africa this week for violating a young child’s rights to privacy, dignity and protection. In the article, “Toddler tortured over a snack” (Sunday Times, 05/04/09, p. 101), the newspaper protects the identity of the perpetrators, who it correctly says “cannot be named because they are minors”, but provides the victim’s full details, including his name, photograph, and an account of the “horrific torture” carried out on him.
The Criminal Procedure Act No.51 of 19772 requires media to protect the identities of both child perpetrators (or “accused”) and victims (or “witnesses”). This is stated very clearly under Section 154 (3):
“No person shall publish in any matter whatever information which reveals or 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 difficult to understand why Sunday Times recognised and protected the rights of the perpetrators but not those of the victim.
The article includes a description of how the perpetrators poured boiling water on the child’s face and genitals, and rubbed chillies into his wounds. It is also mentioned that he will need to undergo several operations as a consequence. The accompanying photograph shows the child’s scarred face.
In addition to being in contravention of the Criminal Procedure Act, it is also not clear how providing the full details of what was done to the then toddler, now 4-years old, (together with revealing his identity and who he is under the care of) can be in the child’s best interests3.
Publishing these details violates the child’s right to privacy, and could be seriously detrimental to his current and future well-being. The child will not only have to live with the abuse he experienced, but also other people’s knowledge of what happened to him, the (probably unwanted) attention that this may bring, and the impact that this may have on his ability to deal with his experiences. Given the abuse the child has already experienced, the non-essential publication of his trauma to satisfy the curiosity of readers arguably amounts to secondary abuse.
Even where information is provided by sources, which in this case may have been the Children of Fire organisation or police (who also have responsibilities), the media has its own obligations and responsibilities towards children. In this case, this means protecting the child’s identity and right to privacy, and safeguarding him against further harm.
Children’s Rights and Media: Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children, also known as the Guidelines of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) state that journalists and media organisations “shall strive to maintain the highest ethical conduct in reporting in children’s affairs and, in particular, they shall…consider carefully the consequences of publication of any material concerning children and shall minimise harm to children” (IFJ, 19984).
MMA urges Sunday Times, and all other media, to remember that all children who have been victims of crime (not just the accused) require special protection, and to fully consider the legal and ethical implications of media coverage.
1 MMA has concealed the child’s name and face to protect his identity.
2 For more information about this, see UNICEF and Media Monitoring Project. 2003. All sides of the story. Reporting on children: A journalist’s handbook. p. 58
3 The principle that the best interests of the child should be prioritised in all decisions affecting the child is contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.
4 International Federation of Journalists. 1998. Children’s Rights and Media: Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children .