Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD to City Press for its article titled, “’Sorry, I couldn’t save them’” (23/09/2018, p.6) in which a child who experienced a traumatic ordeal was interviewed and identified when he is a potential witness at criminal proceedings.
The story is about a 14-year-old who survived a fire that engulfed their home and claimed the lives of his three siblings and a cousin. It is alleged that the fire was caused by a “heater which had been left on”. The story reports that the child was babysitting his siblings and cousin while their mothers were at a local shebeen. The child is interviewed and identified.
The story details the traumatic experience the child had even going further to indicate that he was “visibly distraught … battled to stand still and fought away the tears as he spoke”. By interviewing the child, the journalist potentially exposed him to further harm as he had to relive the traumatic experience. Furthermore, the fact that the child was interviewed immediately after the funeral of the people he witnessed dying, potentially made the secondary trauma worse.
Considering the child suffered significant trauma, MMA argues that City Press should only have interviewed him well after he had been through counselling and in the presence of a trained counsellor who would have assessed beforehand whether the child was fit enough to speak on the matter. The presence of a trained counsellor would have also helped in putting a stop to the interview where the child was “distraught” and struggling to “stand still” as the article reports.
According to the Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media, in order to minimise harm when writing a story on children, reporters must ask those who know or work with them, or are experts on the issue, about the potential consequences of telling the story.
Further to being subjected to potential trauma, making children relive their traumatic experiences can lengthen their healing process.
While it might be argued that the child and his uncle gave consent to be interviewed as is stated in the article, MMA believes it is the journalist’s duty to gauge whether doing so is in the best interest of the child, regardless of whether the child and an adult has given consent. The child’s best interest is supported by the Bill of Rights in Section 28 (2).
Other than interviewing her, City Press also failed to minimise harm by identifying the child. This was in contravention of Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which the Supreme Court of Appeal recently ruled in case 871/2017 (Centre for Child Law and Others vs Media24 Limited and Others) to be read as follows, “No person shall publish in any manner whatever 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.”
By identifying the child who is a potential witness at the criminal proceedings seeing as his mother and aunt are “facing charges of negligence and culpable homicide”, the journalist jeopardised the child’s safety as this places him at risk of being harmed for retribution or as a way to stop him from testifying.
MMA urges City Press, in future, to protect identities of potential witnesses at criminal proceedings and to ensure that the publication does not subject children to secondary trauma. The publication and other media are urged to report on children in such stories in a way that minimises harm.
Written by Musa Rikhotso
 a MAD is given to the media for irresponsibly reporting on a child
 See Section 154 (3) of the criminal procedure Act 51 of 1997