I am amazed by two recent media events.  Special Assignment last Tuesday (9/12/2008) was a follow-up to their expose of an alleged paedophile.  Curiously the programme’s focus seemed designed to be more about staving off a legal challenge from the subject of the programme.  Early into the programme the journalist says, “due to ongoing legal threats by his lawyers we decided to do a follow-up story.”  The programme then goes on to highlight other issues relating to the story that occurred prior to the expose first being aired.

The guy they are showing may well be a scumbag paedophile, certainly the evidence presented in the programme seems to be convincing, with different people and children identifying the house, the car of the alleged offender etc.  To the best of my knowledge, however, as the law stands an accused in a sexual offence case may not be named or identified until the person has pleaded in court.  In the current case Special Assignment didn’t only name and identify him they put the charges to him on national television.  It may be the job of the media to expose crime and corruption but media are expected to do so in a fair and accurate manner and within the confines of the law.

It seems they may well have broken the law in naming him before he has pleaded.  A few years ago in the rape case of Baby Tshepang, some may recall this – a baby was allegedly gang raped by six men.  At the time many media named and identified the men before they had been charged.  It turned out that none of them were involved but most had had to leave the area, lost their jobs and had suffered extreme prejudice and personal trauma having been named in the media.  For all that the media play a fundamentally positive role in general terms in society by shedding light and exposing people and issues that need to be exposed there is very real and significant harm that can arise from being named and identified.  The media would therefore be well advised to exercise extreme caution in naming a sex offender, especially when it involves crimes against children.

One question that arises is whether Special Assignment were justified not only in breaking the law but also in presenting the man in a such a manner that implies his guilt.  Clearly the Special Assignment team felt justified in making and broadcasting the programme.  On some levels we should be happy that they took the risk – one of the most concerning complaints about SABC over the last few years has been the fear of risk taking in their programming and news in case it upset the “powers that be”.  We should also note that Special Assignment has a proud track record for provocative and good investigative journalism.  We can also be sure that the SABC’s lawyers also checked the programme and decided to take the risk.  So the question arises as to how and/or whether you can justify broadcasting a programme that can ruin a man’s life and break the law?

If we consider the constitutional principle (see Section 28 (2)) that says in all matters concerning the child the best interest of the child are paramount, there may be a fairly convincing argument of why they broadcast the programme.  We need to also consider that this was actually the third programme about this person and the crimes against children.  In the first one, the man was not named but the issues were highlighted, especially the concerns about abuse of boy street children.  Special Assignment and some of the people in the programme had reported the matter to the police and it seems based on the evidence they had launched an investigation.  It seems the police had even approached the University of Cape Town and asked them not to take action against the man concerned as they were conducting an investigation.  This all sounds positive and I suspect many people would support a process where a person is investigated if such claims are made and that the police then complete an investigation.

What is concerning is that Special assignment reports that the case has had three different police investigators responsible for it and that for whatever reasons the investigation had not advanced to the stage of making an arrest.  The programme suggests that one of the reasons for the delay in pursuing the case is that it involves street children, who are not only amongst the most vulnerable but also powerless and marginalised group and had the children not been street children the investigation would have moved a lot faster.  Sadly the perspective of the police is not included in the programme.  The two year period of the investigation without any action being taken against the alleged perpetrator is key in considering whether Special Assignment should have named and identified the man.

The delay in making an arrest or finding another suspect exposed the children already violated as well as other street children to further abuse.  The question then becomes one of balancing the rights of the alleged perpetrator against those of the children concerned as well as other street children.  It is a difficult issue to resolve, however, the evidence against the alleged perpetrator appears compelling and if the police are failing to act and prevent more children from being violated then it seems it may well be justified for the public broadcaster to intervene and to expose the alleged perpetrator.  If Special Assignment is right, they will hopefully have ensured that at least one less person is out there violating the rights of the street children.  Furthermore, the publicity around the case will also hopefully ensure that the Police take swift and strong action against the alleged perpetrator.  It is believed that the alleged perpetrator is in the UK or the States.  Either way, the authorities need to find him and extradite him so that there can be due process.  If Special Assignment is wrong, the damage will be huge to a respected person, and the broadcaster will have to bend over backwards to try and make amends, as well as cover damages.  It could be a very high price, but I think as long as the evidence was clear, overwhelming and compelling, multi-sourced, and reliable it is a risk worth taking.  Far too often child abuse is spoken about. While it is easy to condemn, there are still too many instances where communities and people stay silent and allow it.  If the programme has prevented the abuse of children, it is a risk worth taking.

As we celebrate the UN Declaration of Human Rights we need to remember that we all have a duty and responsibility to protect the rights of others and especially children.

The other amazing media incident is that retrenchment of Jeremy Gordin from the Independent Group.  Some may well cheer his departure, indeed it seems that personalities rather than economics motivated the decision to see him off.  Let’s be clear there is nasty politics in almost every major office environment, and its reassuring to know it isn’t only some of our public institutions that forget common sense in favour of personal vendettas.  I hold no brief for Jeremy, by his own admission he “can be an opinionated little prick” but that hardly seem a good reason to retrench him.  Certainly we can expect media times to get whole lot tougher in the coming months, but it just seems to be a really short sighted decision.  For one thing Jeremy won the Journalist of the year award earlier this year.  Getting rid of a high calibre journalist in the same year seems silly.  But it makes even less sense when you consider that he is one of only a handful who is offering a different perspective to the Zuma story.  Whether you agree with it or not is up to you, but it is bad for diversity when someone who is able to represent a different perspective is removed.  Also with our national elections being only a few months away his analysis would have benefited the Sunday Independent.  In addition to this, Jeremy has just published a biography about Jacob Zuma, and it may seem reasonable to expect that some of the publicity around the book would encourage a few more readers to the newspaper.  Sadly they will never know.  Personally one of the saddest aspects is that Karen Bliksem will also be leaving the Sunday Independent, her high heels, tall tales and wit will be missed.  .

On a more positive note, it isn’t that often that we have cause to highlight something really positive in a tabloid, especially when it comes to the portrayal of children.

One of our key areas is children and their representation in the media, we focus on this issue all year round and not only during the 16 days of activism campaign, against women and child abuse.  We have a comprehensive strategy aimed at improving the coverage of children in the media.  Our Empowering Children and Media (ECM) strategy is unique in its approach and we are currently expanding it into a variety of Southern African countries – but I am not writing this blog about the ECM – you can read more about it on our website.

As such, through our MAD OAT project we highlight examples where media fail to report in the best interests of the child, where they violate children’s rights or miss opportunities.  At the same time we also actively seek stories where media challenge stereotypes about children, clearly act in their best interests, support their rights, give them a voice and adhere to principles of ethical and good journalism.  In the past we have highlighted stories in the Daily Sun for readers to be Mad about but also several to be Glad about.  For the end of the year I am writing about one to be glad about.

The story I am referring to, is one about children who studied at night using the streetlights to do their homework.  MMA highlighted all the various positive angles surrounding this story, including how it challenged common stereotypes of poor children being lazy and passive.  Instead the story focused on their passion to learn and commitment to their studies. You can read the full analysis by clicking here It is sadly not that common for many of our newspapers to do follow-up stories on children, unless they are high profile cases.  Our children’s team were therefore delighted to read the Daily Sun page three story on the 9th of December which was a follow-up to the two boys Yonela Bangani and Abongile Maqolo’s efforts of studying under lamplight and how they have been rewarded by passing their exams. (See here) In addition to further humanising the boys by telling their story, it also gave the children voice by interviewing them for their comments.  As with the previous story it once again challenges stereotypes about what children who face so many challenges are able to achieve.  I have no doubt that these stories will be used by us as examples not only of fine reporting on children but also to highlight how this can be achieved in a popular tabloid.  We applaud the journalist and photographer concerned as well as the editor for giving this story such prominence.  We look forward to more in 2009 and we will continue to highlight examples of best and poor practice.