Independent Media fails to protect children in two articles

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is this week compelled to give a MAD[1] to Independent Media Online (IOL) for two news articles that appeared on the news website, both of which were reports on issues relating to children.

The articles, titled, “Brakpan school stabbing and other violent incidents a reflection of events in community – MEC” (03/02/2023) and “Three elderly persons jailed for trafficking, forced marriage of a 13-year-old mildly mentally disabled girl” (02/02/2023), report on minors either being victims of abuse, witnesses to a traumatic event and being party to an on-going criminal matter.

The one article dated (03/02/2023) reports of an issue at a Brakpan-based school in the East Rand where pupils are said to be frustrated at the “lack of assistance from teachers in resolving bullying and violence at their school.” In recent days, the school is reported to have experienced bouts of bullying, with one leading to the death of a grade 10 pupil who was fatally stabbed in an after-school fight.

The second article, published a day before the one above (02/02/2023) is a court report on the decision of the Eastern Cape High Court (Gqeberha Division) to sentence three adults to life-imprisonment after they reportedly collectively trafficked and forced a girl-child into marriage with an elderly husband, who went on to physically and sexually abuse the child – described as a “mildly mentally challenged” 13-year old girl in the article.

While we acknowledge the importance and necessity of reporting on issues that involve and affect or have an impact on children, we believe it is of tantamount importance that this is done in a considerable and ethical manner. Unfortunately, the articles cited above were both negligent in their reporting on children as they did not consider journalistic principles and ethics that ought to be applied when reporting on children.

In the second article (02/02/2023), the reporter indirectly identifies a minor who is also a victim of sexual abuse by naming both the parents of the child in the article. This puts the child at potential risk of intimidation, victimisation, shaming and bullying.

Another issue of concern is the use of the headline to seemingly entice readers, but the issue raised there is not further explored anywhere else in the news article. In the headline, it is said that the girl-child who is the focal point of the article is not only a survivor/victim of abuse, but is also “mildly mentally challenged”, but no further explanation of this – particularly the “mild” part – is offered in the article.

As such, this article, (the one dealing with a child victim of abuse who is also part of a criminal matter), contravened journalistic and Constitutional provisions of reporting on the child, one being that of a Constitutional Court ruling which provides that “the media is not allowed to publish the identity of children who are victims, the accused or witnesses in criminal proceedings, even after they reach the age of 18.” This very publication reported on the matter.[2] This is also enshrined in the publication’s own press code, with section 5.3.1 stating that “in dealing with matters involving children, the statutory restrictions on the naming or identification of children shall be observed and adhered to.”[3]

Further, the first article (03/02/2023) failed to adhere to journalistic ethics by interviewing and quoting children who had just witnessed a traumatic event and had seemingly not yet received counselling. This is not in the best interest of the child, nor does it have overarching public interest elements to it. Moreover, the accessed children are also potential witnesses to a criminal case. This is clearly stated in MMA’s Editorial guidelines and Principles on Reporting on Children in the Media, providing that “when interviewing children, respect their privacy and confidentiality and make sure you protect them from harm and potential consequences.”[4]

This is not in any way to say that journalists should not access children who have encountered traumatic experiences, but rather to suggest that they do so when the children have received adequate counselling and/or are in the presence of a qualified counsellor. The focusing on issues affecting children in South Africa by the media is to be commended, and for IOL to undertake such a task deserves commendation too. Only that next time, take careful consideration to minimise harm and do all in the best interest of the child.

Written by Azola Dayile

Edited by Ntombi Kubeka

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