Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is MAD1 at the Daily Sun’s article “[ ] needs your help!” 2(14/05/2012, p. 7), for its failure to respect a handicapped boy’s right to dignity.

The news piece was published with the urgent headline “[ ] needs your help!” Despite calling on the public for help, the article and the photographs did nothing more than emphasise the indignities suffered by a seriously crippled eight-year old boy, to the detriment of his dignity – a right enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the South African Constitution.

Several references are made in the article on how the boy ‘walks’. These descriptions along with the accompanying photos are anything but dignified, and read rather like a shocking “side-show or attraction.” He “…rolls around in the dust, rubbing his arms and legs – and his hair falls out too!” One of the statements in the article from the boy’s mother explained. “One day I was amazed to see him roll towards me, pushing himself along with his head, arms and feet. But it was painful and he was crying”.

Additionally, the article tells how the “SunTeam” went to visit the child “to see how he copes” stating that, “he lay down and began rolling on the ground until he got to us.” This is portrayed in one of the images, of the boy crawling in an awkward position on the ground toward a woman with her hands out stretched and smiling.  The caption reads“[The boy] demonstrates to the SunTeam how he walks.”

To make the child walk simply for demonstration, is not merely undignified, but also highly insensitive and cruel, as ‘walking’ is clearly not a comfortable, nor pain-free exercise for the boy. It is even possible that the boy could already be a victim of ridicule amongst his and other communities because of his disabilities. In reporting this story in the way it was, there is little evidence that the journalist attempted to minimise harm. MMA also raises the question of whether the mother gave informed consent3 for her child to be photographed in this way.

The journalist seems to have written the article based purely on what the mother said and his own observations of the boy ‘walking’. The mother stated that, “Home Affairs said they can’t help as my parents come from Zimbabwe.”

The article gave no information as to whether or not a child needs be a citizen to get disability assistance in South Africa. It also sought no response from Home Affairs, nor any input from alternative sources who could have spoken to any of the issues raised. In failing to do so, it did little to empower readers or even those who the article is about.

The boy was portrayed as an object of pity due to his disability and his impoverished situation, as no context is provided on the challenges faced by those in similar situations as him. Daily Sun in fact, missed an opportunity to bring attention to people living with disabilities in South Africa, the rights they have, or even helps to clarify for readers the importance of getting a birth certificate for their children and the process involved.

The purpose of the story is therefore unclear and sensational and in so doing humiliates the child. If it is true that the child was born in South Africa and is entitled to a birth certificate and disability assistance from government, and has not gotten these, then that should have been the story.

Written this way, it would have been more informative and empowering. Had these factors been investigated and real answers sought, this could have provided the mother and her son with far more tangible assistance, rather than calling on people to perhaps donate money, which offers no long term solutions for this child, his mother, or any others like them in South Africa.

In the follow up article, “Sunpower shines on [ ]” (21/05/ 2012, p. 3) we read about how after the first story was published, Daily Sun readers “poured their hearts out.” Additionally how the SunTeam together with celebrities and other partners brought the boy a wheelchair, and various people giving thanks.

While MMA is not opposed to the acts of charity toward the boy, we stand by our critique of the initial story, and reiterate that this end fails to justify the means. The dignity of the boy remains undermined, as the photos will forever be in the newspaper, as permanent reminders of his suffering and humiliation.

The above mentioned parties having provided a wheelchair for the boy does not solve the problem for the child and his mother. It is merely a band-aid on an infected and festering wound that is poverty and its various components and consequences, including disempowerment.

The boy’s right to dignity was not upheld by the Daily Sun.

1. MMA highlights cases of good and best practice, where the media has promoted the rights, interests and welfare   of children, they are awarded “GLADs”, as well as instances where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage, referred to as “MADs
2. MMA has concealed the name, face, or details which may directly or indirectly reveal the identity of the child concerned.
3. Informed consent is defined as: “An agreement to do something or to allow something to happen made with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as risks involved, or any available alternatives.” It implies being fully aware of possible outcomes, positive and negative.