There has been a substantial amount of coverage in the media lately, around a 13-year-old girl who went missing with her friend but was found at a later stage. “Girl found man held” (The Times, 09/11/2009, p.5) received a MAD OAT Glad nomination for avoiding re-identifying the girl, after she had been found.
In early November, the media reported on a Grade 5 pupil and her 10-year-old friend who went missing on October 29. The friend returned home safely the following day, while the media continued to publish articles and pictures of her.
It is common practice for a missing child’s identity to be revealed in the media, in order to create awareness and help to find him/her.
The 2005 Empowering Children & Media Project report, further explains that, “The media often help with locating missing children or children who have been kidnapped by featuring a picture of the missing child. However, the kidnapping becomes a criminal case the moment it is reported, and the child is both a victim and witness in the case, and should not be identified. In these instances, the best interests of the child take precedence and the child’s protection becomes a priority, which means that by showing the child’s picture, the media can help to secure the child’s safety.”
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) credits the media on playing their role in helping to find the girl but would like to raise a point of concern at the same time, regarding the protection of a child’s rights when he/she returns home.
The Times succeeded in protecting the child’s rights in the above mentioned article by reporting on the child’s return whilst concealing her identity at the same time.
Concealing the child’s identity is imperative as – amongst other issues – the child becomes a witness in criminal proceedings.
Revealing the identity of a child witness may endanger his/her life as people who have an interest in ensuring that the alleged perpetrator does not get convicted, may harm or intimidate the child for instance.
Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 states: “No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of the accused under the age of 18 years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.”
This legislation ensures that the child is able to carry on with his/her life as normal, without fear or intimidation.
The Times; however, failed to protect a child witness in an article that was published in early November entitled “Primary school girl ‘abducted” (02/11/2009, p.5) around the two girls who went missing.
The article provided the name of the child who returned home first, along with information of how she claimed to have been snatched by “two men in a white car.”
Although The Times is commended on exceptional reporting after the children returned home, it should be said that the medium should have been cautious in its reporting when the first child came back, as she was clearly both a witness and a victim.
Consequently, this article was a contradiction of the efforts made in the article nominated for a Glad, which concealed the children’s identities.
Sowetan also reported on the abduction of the two girls and failed to protect their identities when they returned home.
“Mom pleads for return of 13-year-old girl” (Sowetan, 03/11/2009) reported on the friend’s return and how she had undergone a medical examination.
The article further stated that when the child came back, “…it was like she was hurt and it looked like she had been given drugs.”
This clearly contravened the child’s right to privacy and dignity as supplying confidential information, which may indicate abuse and puts her at risk of retribution or stigmatisation.
Sowetan re-identified the child in two follow-up articles and an editorial entitled “Joy of reunion” (10/11/2009, p.12)
The first article was entitled “Maria (13) one of 236 missing Gauteng kids” (05/11/2009) with the second entitled, “Mom’s joy after girl is found” (09/11/2009, p.4) and published when her friend – the Grade 5 pupil – was found.
The second article re-identified both girls and also mentioned how the police were waiting for a medical report to determine whether the Grade 5 pupil was abused or not.
This also contravened the child’s right to privacy and dignity for the same reasons mentioned above.
According to best practice1 “If the child is then located, and it is discovered that he or she has been abused, it is no longer in the child’s best interests to be identified. The fact that the child may have been identified whilst missing does not mean this principle should be ignored.”
Media plays a crucial role in trying to locate missing children but it must be stressed that the child’s rights when he/she is found should stand paramount.
Some may argue In favour of the public’s right to know when the child has returned home but this should never come at the cost of his/her rights.
Some may even argue that the child’s name was already in the public domain but newspapers cannot assume that yesterday’s readers will be the same readers to read the paper today.
The idea is that there shouldn’t be a way for a reader, who was unaware of the story or the identity of the child, to be able to identify him/her when they return home.
Hence on the same page “All sides of the story,” further explains, “The fact that a publication or station may have named a child, does not legitimate another publication
or station doing so. The argument for continuing to name a child in such a circumstance
has been rejected by the South African courts.”
MMA congratulates The Times and encourages other newspapers to take note of the vigilant but informative reporting displayed by this medium.
We urge journalists to strive for the protection of children’s rights, when reporting on missing children and avoid the possibility of traumatising them further.
1 All sides of the story” a journalist’s guide on reporting on children https://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/images/uploads/allsidesofthestory.pdf p.40,