Three child witnesses were identified in an article published by the Daily Sunabout a nine-year-old boy who hid his two younger brothers, in order to protect them from their enraged father. The article, entitled “Ibhavu of life” (23/11/2009, p.2), received a MAD OAT Mad nomination, wrapping up the MAD OAT nominations for the year, around one of Media Monitoring Africa’s (MMA) concerns in 2009 – the identification of child witnesses.
The article reported on how the father allegedly poisoned the nine-year-old’s siblings, stabbed his mother and set their home on fire. Attempting to save his younger brothers, the boy hid them under a zinc bath, unaware that his father had hanged himself.
The article accessed the child, pictured him and also identified his two younger brothers.
Even though the alledged perpetrator is dead, the children are still child witnesses, as they were all present when the alleged crime took place and investigations will be conducted although they may not reach court. Legally, “criminal proceedings are understood to start the moment it is clear that a crime involving a child has been committed, or where a charge has been laid.” 1
Identifying the children in this case , therefore, contravenes Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 which 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 criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.”
Furthermore, the child was undoubtedly traumatised after his father hit him with a hammer for refusing to drink the liquid that allegedly poisoned his brothers. Considering his abuse above all he witnessed, makes him a victim of abuse too, there seems to be no reason that could possibly justify why identifying him would be in his best interests.
MMA is aware of the effort to portray the child in a courageous light but this is still overshadowed and overweighed by the potential harm the article could have on the child.
Best practice journalism 2 journalists to ask themselves the following questions when trying to determine the best interest of the child:
• “Who is served by identifying this child? Why does the public need to know the child’s identity?
• What is my journalistic purpose in identifying the child?”
Additionally, UNICEF guidelines 3 – to which South Africa is a signatory to – for interviewing children found state, “Do no harm to any child; avoid questions, attitudes or comments that are judgmental, insensitive to cultural values, that place a child in danger or expose a child to humiliation, or that reactivate a child’s pain and grief from traumatic events.”
Another question the article raised was whether the child or his guardian gave informed consent to have his identity or that of his two brothers revealed. It is not clear whether this was the case. Informed consent as, “An agreement to do something or to allow something to happen made with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as the risks involved, or any available alternatives.” 4
This article was published during the 16 days of No Violence against Women and Children and made no reference to the campaign or how common such abuse and femicide is.
MMA urges journalists to consider the impact of their reporting on children that they leave them behind and head back to the newsroom.
The story may be published for a day but it is this kind of insensitive and careless reporting that wounds a child and affects him/her for the rest of their lives. As Themba Khumalo noted in his editorial from the Sunday Sunthe same week “Maiming a child’s spirit is the worst of all sins”. Khumalo is the editor of both the Daily Sunand the Sunday Sun.
We anticipate reporting in the near future from Daily Sun that will not serve to maim a child’s spirit.