At 12pm on the 12th June 2010, media gathered in a Seminar room in Wits University for a press conference. But this one was different. It didn’t look like the boring stuffy setting journalists have come to expect when they’re invited to attend a press conference. No bland boardroom here! Instead colourful paintings, posters and banners adorned the walls. But more importantly this didn’t sound like a press conference any of the journalists had been to before.  Here media was given a fresh critical perspective on what was hitting the headlines from voices seldom heard in the press, from children.

The risks posed to children by abusers or traffickers using social networking sites, Bafana Bafana’s performance in the opening match of the World Cup, along with a few tips for the team, Fifa’s clamp down on counterfeit goods, and how the row over former Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga impacts the lives of children and concerns them. These were just some of the hot topics discussed at the press conference held by Grade 6 and Grade 7 children attending Saxonwold and Naturena Primary Schools.

At this event the children were in the driving seat. The only adult intervention by organisers, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), was to give them four headings: child safety/trafficking, the world cup, children in the media and hot topics. After that it was all down to them. They came up with the theme of the press conference, their call to the media to listen up and play an active role in promoting children’s rights: “Lend a hand, take a stand.” They also selected the issues they wanted to discuss once the cameras started rolling.

Before the conference, many journalists may have presumed that children had no interest in Jacob Maronga’s row with Eskom, and the potential cost of the court action to the State. Not so. As Furqaan Ahmed from Saxonwold Primary school told the press, it was the first issue that he was elected by his group to discuss. His topic was children in the media, his point: no children were accessed anywhere in the reporting of this story. And if any journalist were to argue that it was not an issue that affected children, he had an answer for them too. At the conference he made the point that the money involved should better be spent providing electricity to communities and that the court action risked “pumping money out of our resources, thus creating bad effects for children at home doing homework and at school.”

Under “Hot Topics”, Jead Stehr (Saxonwold Primary) discussed MaNtuli’s alleged infidelity, saying “MaNtuli was a role model to us, well she should be a role model… we felt that she should behave appropriately.” In the almost blanket media coverage of the alleged affair, had the point that some young South African women felt let down by MaNutli’s behaviour even been raised before this?

Child trafficking became a central theme both in the initial stages of the press conference and in the questions that followed. There has been much media coverage of the issue, especially in the run up to the World Cup. But as Khumo Baduza (Saxonwold Primary) observed the World Cup “is not the cause, trafficking did not start in 2010… but people are more aware about it because it is 2010 and there are more people coming into the country.”

Naturena’s Khotso Zihle warned parents to be vigilant about children’s rights, and asked the media to keep a close eye on social networking sites to ensure they’re not used inappropriately by adults to contact children. She also identified how child poverty can make children especially vulnerable to traffickers. “Lets say you live in a poor home or community” Khotso told the press conference, “and they come to you and say “I can give you a good education, a good home, good food”, obviously you will believe them because they can dress well, have nice cars, and you want the good life also.”

The question of what to do if trafficked dominated much of the conference. Child peers in attendance quizzed the panellists about complex issues like documentation. Rather than batting away the question, the panellists were keen to discuss their concerns in relation to it.

Khumo Baduza for example believed that if a child is trafficked to a foreign country “[they] can report it, with or without documents, because [they] were taken their illegally. She told her peers “you can go to the police and tell them I was trafficked to this place… and they can contact your parents and contact your country and say we have found this child”

However Khotso Zihle felt that “if you are a child it is much easier to go to the police. If you are an adult it is much more difficult, because that particular country will expect you to have the right documentation” and as a result that person “may be arrested because they are actually illegal immigrants”.

This press conference wasn’t just a quirky experiment. It was proof that children can offer a rarely accessed fresh critical perspective on a whole range of complex topics. It silenced the argument that children don’t have anything interesting to say. It also demonstrated that accessing children is worth the effort. Including children in media coverage is not easy. Children are afforded special legal protections for good reason. Obtaining prior parental consent for example means we can’t just walk up to a child on the street and ask them what they think. But the easy option is rarely the best one, and going the extra mile to access children will lead to richer and more representative reporting.

See video report  here

By Laura Fletcher, Media Monitoring Africa