Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD[1] to City Press for failing to act in the best interests of children in an article which explores the critical issue of sex work.

Why we want to be legalCity Press (11/06/2017, p.9) makes a case for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa by exploring the experiences of two female sex workers based in Johannesburg. Both women are directly identified and share the circumstances that led to their current occupation as well as some of the trauma that they have experienced at the hands of clients, police and community members. Both women also describe how they are compelled to continue as sex workers in order to provide for their respective families due to a lack of opportunities for other types of work. The article follows from the extensive debates about the potential decriminalisation of sex work and the controversial recommendation recently released by South Africa Law Reform Commission (SALRC) to keep sex work criminal.

While MMA acknowledges the great lengths taken by the journalists to delve deeper into this incredibly hard-hitting and hotly contested issue and the efforts made to actively seek out the voices of those most impacted by the SALRC recommendation, there are ethical concerns raised around how City Press reported on this issue. The most critical of these is the decision to directly identify both women (both mothers) by name and to reveal their location. Identifying them is problematic not only because it may place their own lives at further risk, but also because it has potential consequences for their children. Although they may have given consent to be identified and interviewed for the story, City Press should have exercised caution and considered the consequences for the children who are indirectly identified as a result.

Considering the fact that these children could also be potentially impacted by the events and circumstances relayed by their mothers, of which a central theme is that of stigma and ongoing violence, MMA argues that it was not in the children’s best interests to be identified. Here, the publication should have ensured that the identities of these women, and therefore their children, were completely protected to avoid subjecting them to potential humiliation, abuse and distress.

Not revealing the children’s identities is a specific safeguard put forward in MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media[2] that aims to prevent further harm to the child and ensures that the children’s best interests are put first. These measures also fall in line with stipulations by our Constitution[3] (Section 28.2) and the Code of Ethics and conduct for South African print and online media[4] which state: “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child”.

We would ask that in future, the publication puts the interests of children first in its coverage even when reporting on critical issues such as sex work.

By Sarah Findlay

[1] MADs refer to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage