Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD to Sowetan, The Star and Daily Sun for all failing to protect the identity of a child who, despite having celebrity parents, is a witness in a case of domestic violence.
This commentary analyses three articles, which all relay the story of the same case: “[Name withheld] and [name withheld] face off in court” (Sowetan, 03/08/2018, p.6), “Daughter to testify against dad in abuse” (The Star, 03/08/2018, p.3) and “Celeb couple face off in court” (Daily Sun, 03/08/2018, p.3).
Each article describes the legal proceedings in which a mother has brought charges of domestic violence and assault with intent to do grievously bodily harm against her ex-husband (the father of her child). The case is currently being heard in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. According to the story, a social worker from Teddy Bear Clinic, who interviewed the child and assessed her capacity to testify, was called as the first witness in the case. While the social worker found that the child could testify against her father, she recommended that this should only be carried out in a special courtroom (in camera) through a facilitator without the child’s father present. This was because the child was still “traumatised” to give evidence in front of him. It’s reported that this special request was granted by the magistrate. All three stories indirectly identify the 11-year-old by revealing the names of her parents and by sharing their photographs. Both the girl’s parents are well-known South African television actors.
To start, we acknowledge that this is an important story that deserves coverage. The crisis of domestic violence in South Africa is a critical issue that the media have an obligation to expose, examine and unpack for readers. This case not only highlights the potential effects that such abuse may have on children who are witnesses to it (i.e. trauma), but also reveals how they might be drawn into legal proceedings at a later date, even when they are still children. We would therefore argue that this rightly is a newsworthy story.
Of great concern, however, is that for all three publications, it appears that the celebrity status of the couple has overshadowed any concern for the wellbeing of the individual child. The child is easily identifiable through the naming and photographing of her parents across all three stories and this constitutes a legal violation of Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act (number 51 of 1977) which states that “No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity […] of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.”
In addition to the legal violation presented above, we would also argue that the coverage undermines the girl’s right to dignity and privacy and, fails to minimise possible harm to her.
Likewise, Section 8.1.1 of the Code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media states that “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 […] and the child […] and a public interest is evident…”
Given the massive publicity storm that has occurred and how these articles clearly describe how the child is already traumatised, a publication would be hard-pressed to dispute that revealing her identity does not put her at risk of further trauma or harm such as intimidation to not testify or retribution. The story by The Star even quotes the social worker as saying, “The child displayed intense feelings of fear, anticipating that she might be hurt.” Further to this, it would be difficult to motivate that the public interest in this story outweighs the best interests of the child, even though the child’s parents are both famous. While determining public interest, journalists are advised to gauge whether the story has a public interest or is merely interesting to the public.
MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media advise the media to protect the best interests of children over “any other consideration, including over advocacy for children’s issues and the promotion of children’s rights” as well as over and above any public interest.
Regarding consent, we argue that even where a guardian and the child have given consent, this must be informed and the journalist should gauge whether revealing the identity of the child either directly or otherwise is in the best interest of the child as supported by the South African Constitution which clearly sets out in Section 28(2) that “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”.
MMA further argues that the publications had a responsibility to report accurately but should have taken all precautions to ensure that the child’s identity was protected. The publications should also have pushed back against the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity news and gossip to take up their fundamental responsibility to minimise harm to the child.
We request The Star and Sowetan to withdraw the couple’s identities and instead pseudonyms and, to blur the photographs from the online articles. Further, we request that the publications provide their audiences with an explanation as to why the decision to withdraw identities were taken.
In future, we trust that Sowetan, The Star and Daily Sun will all strive to put the best interests of children first, regardless of who their parents are, and in so doing, we hope that they deepen their commitment to report on children accurately and ethically.
By Sarah Findlay
 MADs refer to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage
 Criminal Procedure Act (1977). http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/acts/1977-051.pdf
 Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media. http://www.presscouncil.org.za/ContentPage?code=PRESSCODE
 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996). http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/constitution/SAConstitution-web-eng.pdf