The media is required to maintain the highest ethical standards when reporting on children especially in instances where they are either victims or witnesses to abuse. This is because media exposure can heighten children’s levels of trauma and deter some of them from speaking out against abuse or recovering from their traumatic experiences. In many instances of bad media practice, identities of children who are victims are revealed by either naming or photographing them; or revealing the identities of their family members. It is for these reasons that an article by The Citizen was selected as a MAD1.

The article titled “‘Boy-beating’ ANC official not arrested” (The Citizen, 22/05/2015, p.1-3) provides an example on how media sometimes get it wrong. The story is about a 14-year-old-boy from the North West province who was assaulted by ANC chief whip at Maquassi Hills Municipality Simon “Jones” Selete. According to the boys’ sister, sometime last year the 14-year-old and his cousin were calling out “a Zimbabwean boy whose name is Pipi”. Selete then beat up the boy because he thought they were swearing at him; he apparently took offence because the word “Pipi” means “penis” in Setswana.

Selete was subsequently arrested and charged with assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. In the story, the boy, his sister and mother are identified. This clearly violates the Criminal Procedure Act2 and the Press Code which states in Section 8.3, “The press shall not identify children who have been victims of abuse, exploitation, or who have been charged with or convicted of a crime, unless a public interest is evident and it is in the best interests of the child.”

When asked to comment on this story, children3 from Parkhurst Primary school said they felt that the story violated the child’s right to privacy and the journalist could have opted to use fake names and blurred the pictures so as to protect the identity of the child.

Such disregard of ethical standards and the law is worrying and disappointing because journalists have the duty to be constantly aware of the need to protect children and minimise harm to them.

While such stories of abuse against children are important to tell and we commend the media for them. It is important to tell these stories without inflicting any harm on the child. According to Jones, Finkelhor and Beckwith4, over the years “child abuse has become a national issue and media has played a crucial role in drawing public attention to it. But it is the Media publicity about child abuse and child victimisation however increases the possibility of adding to the substantial burden victims carry. Theories about victimisation, trauma, and research about recovery …all suggest that publicity about their ordeal may increase victims’ feelings of shame and stigmatisation.”

So, it is important that journalists guard against the potential harms stories such as these can have on children. Moreover, it was perhaps not advisable to interview the child in the story because of the state of trauma he still in. In the story the child is quoted saying that he had been traumatised by the attack and had failed grade eight because he could not get over the attack. There is a risk that this interview might re-traumatise the child or affect his recovery.

MMA does not doubt that The Citizen has children’s best interests at heart; we feel that in this instance more care could have been exercised to protect the child in question.

By Lethabo Dibetso

1. On a weekly basis, MMA highlights cases of good practice, where the media has promoted the rights and welfare of children, otherwise referred to as “GLADs”, as well as instances where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage, referred to as “MADs”
2. Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977: No person shall publish in any manner whatever any information which reveals or may reveal the identity of an accused under the age of eighteen years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of eighteen years: Provided that the presiding judge or judicial officer may authorize the publication of so much of such information as he may deem fit if the publication thereof would in his opinion be just and equitable and in the interest of any particular person.
3. As part of its Empowering Children and the Media Strategy, Parkhurst Primary school participates in MMA’s Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MAD OAT) where learners aged between 12 and 14 are taught media literacy and media monitoring skills
4. Finkelhor and Beckwith (2010: 348) Protecting victims’ identities in press coverage of child victimization.Journalism.11(3) pp.347–367