Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) had hoped that South African media would start 2011 with good intentions, and that perhaps adopt New Year’s resolution to ensure children’s rights are upheld and protected in the press.

Daily Sun is South Africa’s biggest selling National newspaper and last year it came third in MMA’s ratings for best practice reporting on children. However rather than putting its best foot forward for 2011, Daily Sun has gotten off to an abysmal start.

In the space of one week, ten articles from Daily Sun were nominated for MADs – that’s an average of two a day that violated children’s rights.

Children must be protected from actual or potential harm, humiliation and stigmatisation. Journalists, editors and photographers have an ethical obligation to minimise harm and must act in the best interests of children – a principle that is enshrined in the South African Constitution.

Section 28(2) of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution:

“The child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”

This principle is also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 3), which also sets out children’s rights to privacy (Article 16) and dignity (Preamble).

The Children’s Act and the Criminal Procedure Act also offer special legal protection to children. For example Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act 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.”

However on ten separate occasions in just one week Daily Sun flouted its obligation to minimise harm and to report in a manner consistent with the best interests of the children involved.

On Monday 10 January it ran an article “Evil mum dumps two kids on the doorstep” (Daily Sun, 10/01/2011, p. 10) in which children who had been abandoned by their mother were photographed and named. Their grandmother was also quoted as saying “I can’t afford to raise her [daughter’s] kids. I want social workers to take them away.” This article and the accompanying photograph are clearly not in the best interests of these children. And the most basic level the children have been publically identified as children who were abandoned by their mother, and are being offered into care by their grandmother. These children have been portrayed as a burden and may be labelled and stigmatised as unwanted. They are also allegedly victims of and potentially witnesses to the crime of child abandonment.

On Tuesday 11 January Daily Sun published three problematic articles. “Haunted by her dead boyfriend” (Daily Sun, 11/01/2011, p.4) gave intimate details of the troubled sex life of a woman who lost her boyfriend. She was named and photographed, and details were given about the children she had with her boyfriend who was killed, and who allegedly now haunts her, and with a man who she described as “no longer interested in me” as a result. While of course an adult can choose to go to a newspaper and discuss details of their sex life, the question must be asked what possible value referring to the woman’s children could add to this story. Their inclusion is potentially humiliating and emotionally damaging for the children, especially for the eight year old who is in school.

“Please help, she can’t rest in peace” (Daily Sun, 11,01,2011, p.11) is another article that named and identified two children that had been abandoned by their mother.

While the article “Evil thugs killed our family” (Daily Sun, 11,01,2011, p.5) is almost exceptional in how many legal and ethical children’s rights it violates.The article described in graphic detail the killing of a young mother, while her children were in the room under a blanket. The children were indirectly identified, as the woman who was killed was named, and so was her cousin, the father of another of the children. A child is also pictured with mourning family members and it is not clear if this is one of the child survivors.

Those who work with children warn that they can relive traumatic experiences. It is possible that the children who survived this ordeal would be very upset and possibly traumatised after reading about their mother or aunt’s death in such detail.

These children are also “witnesses” to a crime, and as such they should have had their identities protected. Failing to do so could put them at risk of harm or intimidation, especially if the killers fear arrest or prosecution.

On Wednesday 12 January “Snacks made them sick” (Daily Sun, 12/01/2011, p.11) named and pictured children who became ill after eating “dumped food” that have been left near Pholile Camp in Lwande. The article described how one of the children “developed mouth sores” and the other “got a rash all over her body.” Identifying these children and giving intimate details of their conditions was potentially humiliating and failed to acknowledge and uphold these children’s rights to privacy and dignity.

Alongside another article “Mlungu woman finds home with the orphans” (Daily Sun, 12,01/2011, p.24), a photograph was published showing the orphans who, according to the article “come from very poor backgrounds” and “are just grateful to have a place to call home.” While this piece clearly aimed to raise awareness and possibly funds for a positive initiative, by indentifying the children, Daily Sun made these children vulnerable to stigmatisation and further hardship.

This is also the case for three children identified in “This family is really poor and suffering” (Daily Sun, 12,01,2011, p.27). According to the article, the children “can see the sky through their broken roof”, and “often eat only a few slices of bread a day” The children and their parents were named in this article. The children are portrayed as victims without agency, and totally dependent on the kindness of strangers. They have been publically labelled as poor and helpless.

On Thursday 13 January another child who was present when her mother was killed was indirectly identified in “Ex-girlfriend stabbed to death” (Daily Sun, 13,01,2011, p.2). The woman who was killed was named, indirectly identifying the child, who was a witness to the crime. In addition the article revealed that the child’s father is suspected of killing the woman, saying the victim “shared a four-year-old child with the evil man who attacked her.” The phrasing is at best insensitive and at worst potentially harmful for the child in question.

Another child witness was potentially indirectly identified in “Man kills lover than himself” (Daily Sun, 14,01,2011, p.5). The couple were identified, and the man is alleged to have killed the woman in their home, where they were discovered by a “boy” who “saw the door to their room was open” This indicates that the boy was inside the house at the time and it is likely that he lived there or near-by and would be readily identifiable to neighbours or people in the community.

And finally another article that broke all the best practice rules appeared on Friday 14 January 2011. “She stole R1,800 and ran!” (Daily Sun, 14/01/2011, p.15) was about an 11 year old girl who had allegedly run away from home. However it focused on an accusation that the child had stolen R1,800 from her mother and ran away. The child was named and photographed, and while this may have been a reasonable approach if the article was exclusively about helping to find the young girl, it instead identified a child that was accused of a crime, contrary to Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act. Rather than a missing child, this girl was portrayed as a criminal run away, which was clearly not in this child’s best interests.

Each of these articles clearly failed to respect the rights of the children involved, failed to minimise harm, and failed to uphold the ethical, moral and legal obligations demanded when reporting on children. MMA is hoping that this is a bump on the road, rather than a sign of things to come, and urges Daily Sun to protect and support the children it reports upon, rather than ignoring their rights.