Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is appalled by an article published by Daily Dispatch and as a result the publication receives a MAD[1] for reporting a story relating to a child victim who is indirectly identified. Daily Dispatch also receives the MAD for interviewing a potentially traumatised child witness. These actions were not in the best interests of the children involved.

 The article titled, “Child’s night of terror in pit toilet” (23/08/2021, p.1) reports a story about a five-year-old boy who reportedly spent a night in a pit toilet after being put there by his aunt. According to the article, it is alleged that the boy was discovered in the pit latrine by his 15-year old sister the next morning after being assaulted and dumped by his aunt.

The article indirectly identifies both the child victim of abuse and his sister who is a potential witness at criminal proceedings by naming their neighbour, the school where the child goes to and also the location of his home. By doing this, the journalist subjects both children to secondary trauma and exposes the boy to potential ridicule and victimisation. The article quotes the child’s principal who says, “Even though he looks fine after receiving counselling, he still endured a very painful experience.” MMA believes this should have made the journalist more sensitive when reporting the story and ensure that the child is not identified in any way.

When reporting stories about children who are victims of and/or are witnesses to abuse or crime or, those children who are suspected of having committed crimes, journalists should take care not only to avoid compromising the children’s safety but to also protect their rights to dignity and privacy. This will ultimately safeguard children’s best interests as enshrined in the South African Constitution in Section 28 (2) of the Bill of Rights. The children’s best interests are also emphasised in the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media.[2]

The guidelines provided by the Press Code are clear with regards to identifying children such as the one in this story. Clause 8.3 of the Code states, “The media shall therefore … not identify children who have been victims of abuse, exploitation, or who have been charged with or convicted of a crime, without the consent of their legal guardians.

 It is mentioned in the article that the perpetrator has already appeared in court which means a legal process is underway. The bare minimum expected from the law is that the media (or anyone for that matter) should not publish any information that could reveal the identities of children involved in criminal proceedings as clearly stated in Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which was recently ruled by the Supreme Court of Appeal to read, “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.”[3]

The journalist interviews and quotes the boy’s sibling who found him in the toilet the next morning. She is 15 years old according to the article and should have therefore been afforded some protection. In the story, the sibling recounts the traumatic ordeal of how she found her brother in the toilet. By interviewing a child who is potentially still traumatised, Daily Dispatch went against Section 8.1 of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South Africa Print and Online Media that states, “If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed… without the consent of a legal guardian….and a public interest is evident..”

The article does not indicate whether fully informed consent to interview the child was obtained from anyone including the child. MMA argues though that even where consent has been obtained, the journalists should exercise their duty and gauge whether interviewing the child will subject them to harm, including potential harm. We ask the media to always act in the best interest of children. A public interest is also missing in the story and MMA feels that the child’s interview was merely interesting to the public. We strongly urge the media to refrain from interviewing children who have undergone a traumatic ordeal before they have fully healed from the trauma not only because it poses potential harm to the children but also because the child’s testimony in the article can potentially be used against the case during court proceedings.

We recognise the effort made by the journalist in a follow up article on this story titled, “Aunt charged for strangling, dumping five-year-old nephew in pit loo.” (24/08/2021). The story mentions that the aunt cannot be named to protect the identity of the child and we are of the strong view that this principle should have been applied in the previous story where the neighbour’s identity should have been concealed to protect the boy and his sibling.

 According to the Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media, the media, through reporting, must minimise harm and ensure balanced reporting that is in the best interests of the child.[4]

MMA urges journalists to refrain from identifying children who are victims of and/or are witnesses to crimes and at criminal proceedings as doing so puts the children at risk of being harmed for retribution or to keep them from testifying.

We further encourage the media to be extra careful when reporting on issues that affect children and ensure that the children involved in the stories are protected.

Written by Yinhla Ngobeni

Edited by George Kalu and Lister Namumba

[1] MADs are given to journalists who have irresponsibly reported on children and compromised their rights and welfare