Media flout journalistic principles by identifying a child victim.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD to a number of media entities for directly identifying a child who is a victim of abuse in their reportage. The MAD is given because identifying a child where they have been victimised violates their basic human rights and exposes them to secondary trauma as well as other forms of harm.
In a distressing violation of chapter 8 of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media and Section 5 of the Independent Online Press Code, Cape Argus, (07/07/2023), Cape Times (07/07/2023), Cape Argus(10/07/2023), Scrolla Africa(10/07/2023) and News24,(10/07/2023) all recently published the harrowing tale of a five-year-old boy who sustained severe burn wounds after being doused with boiling water for playing near a neighbours’ yard. As a result of uproar in the community triggered by a social media campaign seemingly initiated by the victim’s close relative, the perpetrator of the assault has since been arrested and criminally charged.
All the articles overtly mention the child’s name. However, the stories published in the Cape Argus, Scrolla Africa and Cape Times further exacerbate this violation by also publishing images of the young boy where he is easily identifiable. The images also show his burn wounds.
Despite the well contextualised coverage offered by News24 journalists – who dissect the subject of child abuse in the Western Cape by the providing expert analysis, statistical evidence pertinent to the issue, and remedial actions offered by the state – the basic tenets of ethical journalism in relation to reporting on children are disregarded.
Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedures Amendment Act of 2021 prohibits the publishing “in any manner whatsoever any information which reveals or may reveal the identity of an accused under the age of 18 years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years”.
As this matter is now subject to criminal court proceedings, publishing the personal information of a minor who is involved or is affected by these proceedings is a clear breach of the laws of the republic.
Chapter 1 (8) of the Press Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media, it states that media professionals “shall not identify children who have been victims of abuse or exploitation… the media are also to exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be interviewed, photographed, or identified”.
Since it is not even in the public interest to publish the identity of the child victim concerned, MMA is concerned by the fact that the media entities listed here did so irrespective of the potential harms this child may be exposed to. As a result of being identified in media coverage, the child might face victimisation. Further, the child might be harmed to be kept from testifying since he is a potential witness at criminal proceedings. Additionally, publishing such sensitive images can be very distressing and could lead to the development of secondary psychological trauma, anxiety, depression or even aggravate his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The child could also develop long term self-esteem issues and be exposed to stigmatisation and other forms of bullying.
Besides compromising the child’s physical safety, these images also violate the child’s right to privacy and exposes him to further undesirable attention. In the long-term, these images may have a significant impact on the child’s educational experiences and his ability to form social relationships due to the development of negative attitudes from peers, or even educators.
It is especially alarming that more than one media house flouted the principles of ethical reporting on children on the same story.
Since 2003, MMA has painstakingly pursued a plethora of initiatives that seek to highlight the significance of ethical and responsible practice when reporting on children’s matters and continues to do so to the present day. MMA urges all journalists who are uncertain as to how they should proceed when reporting sensitive children’s matters to consult the Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media to ensure that the best interests of the child are at the apex in the execution of their duties.
MMA requests Cape Argus, Cape Times, Scrolla Africa and News24 toretract the direct and indirect identity of the child mentioned in the articles herein to protect him from additional harm and republish these amended articles with an accompanying explanation that clarifies to the reader why the identity of the child has been hidden.
MMA urges all journalists to take more consideration and caution when writing about children, particularly those that are victims, so as not to further perpetuate the harms that children are exposed in their daily existence.
We look forward to the prospect of reading articles from these newsrooms that are aligned with their respective press codes and that conform to the principles of best practice when reporting on children.
Written by Tumelo Hlaka
Edited by Ntombifuthi Kubeka
 MADs are given to media and journalists who have negligently reported on children, thus compromising their rights and welfare.