Bullying in schools is a major problem that has seen pupils being victims at the hands of their fellow schoolmates. The topic has received wide coverage from local media where incidences of bullying have been highlighted. While the media should be commended for informing the public about bullying and abuse in schools, we emphasise the responsibility on journalists to take the necessary precautions of protecting the identity of the victims in these stories.
The Star’s “Bullied to death” (21/09/2017, p.1) for instance, gets a MAD from Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) for failing to adequately conceal the identity of a child who is a victim of and witness to abuse. According to the article, a 13-year-old boy was fatally injured when he and his younger brother had suffered three attacks from pupils at their school in Benoni. In the article, The Star identifies the deceased 13-year-old boy thereby indirectly identifying his sibling who is also a victim of abuse and a potential witness at criminal proceedings.
The article reports that the deceased and his brother had suffered several bullying incidents at school other than the three attacks and that while the school was aware of this, it failed to act despite the family having had these reported to the school several times. The matter has since been reported to the police who opened an inquest into the child’s death and the Gauteng Department of Education is reportedly, “carrying out an investigation into the matter”.
By indirectly identifying the child, The Star contravened its own Press Code which states in Sections 3.1 and 3.3 respectively that “The statutory restrictions on the naming or identification of children shall be considered” and ”The permission of the parent or guardian of any child shall be sought in all cases where the identity of the child is to be disclosed.” The article does not state whether fully-informed permission to identity was obtained from the children’s mother. Section 3.4 of the same Code goes on to state that “Even if the parent or guardian consents to disclosure of identity of a child, Independent Media shall exercise a cautious discretion, if it may be harmful to the child to publish the identity of the child.”
Identifying children who have witnessed a crime puts them at risk of harm as perpetrators or others might target them for retribution or to keep them from testifying. Furthermore, identifying a victim in the media may serve as a constant reminder to the child of the traumatic event they experienced. The surviving child in the story is both a witness and victim.
Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act was also flouted. The Section warns against the identification of children who are accused of crimes or are witnesses at criminal proceedings which are understood to include police investigations. The Section states“No person shall publish 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.”
Interestingly, in the same article, The Star reports on another incident involving a pupil from a school in Tsakane, Springs who was injured after a classmate poured boiling water over her. In this instance, The Star was careful to ensure that all the identities of the children involved were protected. This illustrates how journalists can convey the severity of these issues without compromising on protecting the identities of the children involved.
While MMA encourages media to report incidences of abuse against children, we urge journalists and editors to sufficiently protect the children involved. We hope to read more stories by The Star and other media that are more sensitive towards children who are victims of abuse and/or witnesses to crimes.
By Msizi Mzolo
 A MAD refers to an article where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible media coverage.