The Media Monitoring Project (MMP) is deeply disturbed by the Sowetan article “Shakoane plaintiff ‘had been sexually active’” (13/10/08, p.6). Both the article and the title mislead readers on what is at issue in a case of statutory rape of a minor. In addition to providing confusing messages through irrelevant points, the article fails entirely to point out that sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16 is classified as statutory rape.

The story ostensibly covers the trial of a well known person who is accused of sexual assault of a 15-year old girl. In addition to not identifying the correct class of the criminal charge, the article largely focuses on the alleged victim of the assault, particularly her testimony and the questioning of her credibility by the alleged perpetrator’s counsel.

According to Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16 is classified as statutory rape, regardless of whether consent is given or not (Chapter 3, Sections 15 & 16, Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007). According to the law, a person under the age of 16 does not possess sufficient maturity to consent to sexual relations.

The article makes no mention of this at all, and refers solely to “indecent assault”, which according to the Act is no longer the term used for acts of sexual violation. This is a significant failing to educate readers on how such sexual relations are interpreted by the law.

The article compounds this error by making reference to claims about the alleged victim’s sexual history, which is entirely irrelevant to a case of statutory rape.

Furthermore, the article provides a confusing mix of other irrelevant information regarding the statements made by the alleged victim and the process by which a charge was laid.

This does nothing to clarify the case, nor does it recognise the hesitancy and trauma that a victim of statutory rape may suffer in disclosing the abuse and making a statement to police.

Rather than informing the public clearly and correctly about an alleged serious crime against a minor, the article appears to be conducting a ‘trial by media’, with a clear bias against a child before the conclusion of the trial in court.

The law is clear on what constitutes statutory rape, and an alleged victim’s sexual history and consent have no relevancy in determining a case.

MMP hopes that Sowetan takes note of the law in future reporting on cases of sexual assault against minors, and reports clearly on the issues at stake and process involved so as not to mislead or confuse readers.