Both Sowetan and City Press came to Media Monitoring Africa (MMA)’s attention this week for publishing articles which identified children who were witness to criminal proceedings and / or were victims of child abuse (“Scalded in the bath?”, City Press, 29/03/09, p. 12; “Cops rescue baby from bizarre ritual”; Sowetan, 23/03/09, p. 1 & “Cops at a loss over baby throwing act”, p. 4; “3 baby ritual women free, mom charged”; Sowetan, 24/03/09, p. 7; “I can’t believe he killed him”, Sowetan, 25/03/09, p. 10). While the stories differ, both newspapers deserve MAD OAT Mad nominations for failing to protect the children’s identities1.
City Press’s “Scalded in the bath?” (29/03/09, p. 12) tells the story of a 14-year old girl with mental and physical disabilities who was allegedly bathed in scalding hot water by caregivers at a specialised school, resulting in third degree burns. Details are provided of what is alleged to have taken place, with accounts and comments provided by the school principal, the local police, and the mother.
It is reported that a case of “assault and intent to do grievous bodily harm” is being investigated by the police, and that the Limpopo education department is also launching an investigation (“Scalded in the bath?”, City Press, 29/03/09, p. 12) .
As the case is under investigation, the media has a clear duty, defined by the Criminal Procedure Act2, to protect the identity of the child. This means the media must not provide any details which may directly or indirectly identify the child, such as the name of the child or his/her family.
It is also reported that the child was forced to leave the school, and is now in the care of his/her mother. Given the child’s need for education, and to move to another school (where necessary), it is possible that publishing her full details in the newspaper may be detrimental to her ability to successful re-integrate into school life.
Sowetan’s front-page story “Cops rescue baby from bizarre ritual” (23/02/09, p. 1 & 4) tells the story of a baby who was “rescued” from what appeared to be a “bizarre ritual” where the mother and 3 aunts were throwing the baby around in the air and between each other. It was reported that following a phone call by a neighbor, concerned about child abuse, the women were arrested, to be charged with child abuse, and the baby was taken to a place of safety.
Sowetan carried photographs of the baby on the front page and the inside of the newspaper. It is unclear whether the name accompanying the photographs is the baby’s real name or a pseudonym.
According to the Criminal Procedure Act and the Children’s Act 2005 3, the child’s identity should have been protected, given that s/he is a party to criminal and children’s court proceedings.
In Sowetan’s follow up article,“3 baby ritual woman free, mom charged” (24/03/09, p. 7), some recognition is shown for the newspaper’s requirement to protect the child’s identity. It is stated: “The 30-year old mother, who cannot be named to protect the identity of the child, has been charged with child abuse”. In the same report, however, the front-page photograph of the baby that was published on 23 March 2009 is featured, with apparently no appreciation of how this contradicts the expressed intention to protect the baby’s identity.
The final article, Sowetan’s “I can’t believe he killed them” (25/03/09, p. 10) details the story of a 20-year old pupil, who is to appear in court, having been accused of killing three people and injuring 13 others, including two children.
The children who were injured by the man are directly identified through provision of their full names.
Once again, it is clear that the case is ongoing, these children are witnesses, and Sowetan has a legally defined duty to protect their identities, which it has failed to discharge.
It cannot be emphasised enough that the media must fulfill its responsibilities to protect children, which are laid out both legally and ethically. Given both City Press and Sowetan’s have been commended by MMA previously for their coverage of children, it is disappointing that they both failed in their responsibilities by naming these children.
1 MMA has concealed details, such as names or faces, which may indirectly or directly reveal the children’s identities.
2Section 154(3) of The Criminal Procedure Act states: “No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of the accused under the age of 18 years or of a witness at a criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years”. 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 Act No. 38 of 2005: Children’s Act, 2005. Cape Town: Republic of South Africa. Chapter 6, Part 4 (74).