On the 21st of March, all people in South Africa celebrate Human Rights Day which commemorates the Sharpville massacre of 1960 and the signing of the Constitution. This is the same Constitution that guarantees the rights of children. In fact, Article 28.2 says ‘A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child’.

In the immediate weeks running up to the celebration of human rights day, there has been a series of media articles on children that violate their basic human rights. Several particularly bad cases appeared during 5th to the 12th of March are particularly bad. The reports include identifying child victims of abuse, commercial exploitation of vulnerable children and infringing children’s right to dignity.

The Daily Voice on 9 and 10 March (p1, 7 & 8), featured a story on teenagers who had been drugged and raped on camera as part of a feature on a child-porn ring. The article shows the faces of the victims in shots from the video. Almost the whole of page 7 is dedicated to pictures of the victims in various degrees of nudity engaged in sexual acts. Captions under the photos explain what is happening in the scenes. In fact, the way the story is reported may actually encourage readers to obtain copies of this child pornography, as it seems to titillate the reader, rather than present the acts as they are. Illegal activities which violate girls rights to bodily integrity. The narrow black strip on the eyes of the victims is not enough to ensure that they are not identifiable. This coverage not only stereotypes teenagers and people from the Cape Flats, worse, it is illegal and grossly irresponsible. The Media Monitoring Project has filed a complaint with the Press Ombudsman against the Daily Voice for this gross abuse of children’s rights.

The Daily Sun ran two stories on corporal punishment in schools. Although media has a role to challenge human rights abuses, including corporal punishment in schools; the manner in which these stories were written constitutes further human rights abuse.

The first, published in the front page of 7 March 2007 edition and entitled “TEACHER WHIPPED MY KID!” clearly identifies a child victim of corporal punishment, which is illegal and a violation of human rights. The second page of the story (p2) included an insert showing the bruised thigh of the child, she is standing in her underwear for the picture. This is not only an assault on the child’s dignity, using a picture of the girl in her underwear was unnecessary.

The second story appeared on 8 March 2007, with a headline “Angry boy attacked by teacher….Boy and teacher in fist fight… Chaos- and boy is kicked out!!” The story is about a 14 year old boy whose family claims he was beaten up by the teacher with a belt and the boy fought back. Again, in this case the Daily Sun identifies the name of the alleged victim, although he is underage. To identify an underage victim is a criminal offence.

The Citizen picked up on a possible Vodacom attempt to get publicity for their development work by publishing a picture on 12 March 2007, p3. The picture shows children who, from the caption, are beneficiaries of VODACOM’S Nurturing Orphans of Aids for Humanity project. From the picture and the caption, these happy-looking children seem to be affected by HIV/AIDS. Whether they are HIV positive or not they may suffer from stigmatisation because of this picture. The use of such images constitutes commercial exploitation as the company involved clearly wants to get good ‘ad-spend’ out of the project.

Another example of poor coverage is the Sunday World edition on 11 March 2007, p4, which carried a story titled “Birth by the bottle: Good Samaritan uses broken glass to cut newborn baby’s umbilical cord” about a baby boy who was delivered in a street. The report showed a picture of the baby with his mother and sister (p5). The sister is also said to have been born in the bush on the mother’s way to hospital. It was unnecessary to show the picture of the older sister because the story was not about her but about her brother.

In striking opposition to the above items, The Star produced an article about two boys who walk 24 kms everyday to school and back. The story (13 March 2007, p13) receives high prominence as it is placed opposite the editorial page. The two boys are pictured happily walking to school and the children are sourced in the article. The piece is touching, presenting the children, not as victims of poverty, but boys see the importance of education (along with their mother, who wants to see them educated). This is in contrast to many stories of poor children which are written to solicit sympathy from the reader and picture the children as passive victims of circumstance. The article was effective too, as the boys have now been offered bicycles to get to school.

The Media Monitoring Project appeals to media to respect and not infringe the rights of children by identifying them when they have been victims of abuse. Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of being identified in the media. Let the best interests of the child be paramount in every matter concerning the child as we celebrate Human Rights Day on March 21st and everyday.

– Sandra Roberts