Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD[1] to GroundUp for an article titled, “COVID-19: Cookhouse police accused of beatings during curfew” (12/01/2021). The article has been selected as a MAD for failing to adhere to ethical standards of reporting on children by identifying the child involved who is an alleged victim of abuse by the police thereby compromising his safety.

The article reports on a 14-year-old boy who was allegedly abused by the police for being outside his house after curfew.  The abuse by the police reportedly resulted in him developing a hearing problem. The article also mentions that this kind of abuse has been common in the area and one of the incidents involved a 20-year-old man who was taken into police custody and allegedly beaten by five police officers for also violating curfew regulations.  According to the article, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate “is probing the matters”.

The article names the 14-year-old boy and his mother and because of this, the journalist has potentially subjected the child to harm as he might be harmed for retribution or to keep him from testifying.

Additionally, by directly and indirectly identifying the child, GroundUp has contravened Section 8.1 of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media which states, “The media shall therefore exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed, photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child); and a public interest is evident.”

The article does not indicate whether fully informed consent was obtained from the child’s parent and the child himself to identify him. MMA argues though that even where this consent is obtained, the media should exercise its duty of ensuring children are protected in coverage by acting in the children’s best interest. This includes not identifying the child even where the parents, guardians and the child have given permission as oftentimes, parents and children themselves give the consent without fully understanding the potential consequences of having their identities revealed. This is the reason why MMA always urges the media to ensure that all parties are fully informed, before they give consent, about the possible harm that might come to them by virtue of having their identities revealed in media coverage.

Additionally, there is no evident public interest in identifying the child and, it is definitely not in his best interest to be identified as doing so potentially causes harm to him. MMA’s argument here is that the story could have had the same impact had it been told without the child’s identity. Therefore, the media should always consider the value of information added to a story especially when it has to do with a child’s identity.

In addition to violating the Press Code, GroundUp has also flouted Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act which warns against the direct and indirect identification of children who are accused of crime, are victims or are witnesses at criminal proceedings. This Section was ruled by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2018 to include the protection of victims.

MMA therefore requests GroundUp to withdraw the child’s and his mother’s identities from the article and to instead use pseudonyms. Furthermore, an explanation should be given to readers as to why the decision to withdraw the identities was taken.

MMA encourages GroundUp to protect child victims and witnesses in all their stories and to always promote the best interest of children in such reporting.

By Musa Rikhotso

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