In October 2008, Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MAD OAT) raised concerns about Sowetan’s article “Shakoane plaintiff ‘had been sexually active’” (13/10/08, p. 6) for sending confusing messages, and failing to specify that sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16 is classified as statutory rape (MAD OAT. 2008. “Important point of statutory rape lost in confusion of irrelevant detail”). Once again, MAD OAT raises these two concerns, this time about Sowetan’s article “Justice for rape victim” (10/02/09, p.6) which reported on the court hearing involving the alleged rape of a then 14-year old.
In the first place, the headline “Justice for rape victim, at last”, is misleading. The wording implies that there has been a judgment in favour of the alleged victim, when in fact, as the article itself reports, the case is ongoing, possibly eight years after the alleged incident took place. This misleads readers on both what the story is, and what amounts to justice for the alleged victim.
Secondly, and crucially, the article fails to clarify that according to the law, sexual intercourse with a 14-year old is statutory rape. By omitting this fact, and focusing instead on the accused’s testimony that sex was “agreed” in “exchange for beer”, the article misses a significant point. In doing so, it misses the opportunity to educate readers on important legislation concerning children, child abuse and sexual offenses.
As previously stated (MADOAT, 2008), according to the Sexual Offences Act (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). According to the law, a person under the age of 16 does not possess sufficient maturity to consent to sexual relations.
Focusing on the accused’s testimony and the issue of consent, without putting them into context of legislation, misrepresents the issue of statutory rape, which can have serious consequences. At the very least, there is a danger that both adults and children receive misleading messages about sexual relationships between adults and children, in terms of what is acceptable and legal. More specifically, there is a danger that an adult’s sexual relationship with a child is not seen as “statutory rape” or “abuse”, where there is so called “consent”.
When reporting on issues that affect children, such as statutory rape, there can be no room for partial or misleading information. It is especially important that media provides information which is contextualised, accurate and clear. Media Monitoring Africa hopes that Sowetan will heed these concerns, be more careful reporting on these issues, and consider the consequences that failing to do so may have for children.