Accessing children, ventilating their views on matters that involve them and protecting their identities when necessary are some of the most important journalistic ethics that which journalists ought to abide by. This is to ensure that children participate in issues and decisions affecting them and that they are protected from harm and retribution in all instances.
It is for this reason that this week, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is compelled to give a MAD to News24 for the article titled, “Hoerskool Jan Viljoen: SGB appoints independent team to probe allegations at school” (20/02/2022) as the journalist went on to identify the protesting children whilst also omitting to include their views.
The article follows on a story of alleged racism at Hoerskool Jan Viljoen in Randfontein, Gauteng where black and coloured learners “felt racially targeted at the school following a violent altercation”. It relays the efforts by Gauteng Education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, parents and the School Governing Body who met to appoint an independent team to investigate the allegations of racism.
As part of the story, a video showing protesting school children was embedded in the article. However, the learners’ faces are clearly visible and no attempts to blur them were made. This potentially exposes the children to further harm and victimisation as they are easily identifiable especially that they mention in the article that they feel “racially targeted” and also, that there is an investigation into a case of sexual assault by a suspended teacher.
MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media notes that “when interviewing and photographing children, respect their privacy and confidentiality, and make sure you protect them from harm”.
Additionally, the omission of children’s voices in the story – with their identities hidden – further violates the editorial guidelines and journalistic ethos referred to above. It is stated in the guidelines that “children have a right to have their views heard on matters that affect them, so try to include them”.
We submit that the journalist should have creatively added children’s voices on the matter while withholding their identities.
MMA advises that when the media report on children, they should always consider the impact the story might have on the child, presently or in future including the impact on the children of the media’s decisions to identify them. We therefore plead with News24 to be cautious when reporting on children and to ensure that the publication always respects the privacy and views of children in order to include and protect them from harm, including potential harm.
MMA requests News24 to blur the faces of children in the video and photograph (s) accompanying the article mentioned above. We also ask that an explanation be given to News24’s readers as to why the decision to withdraw identities was taken.
MMA looks forward to reading articles by News24 that minimise harm and promotes the best interests of the children involved.
Written by Azola Dayile
Edited by Lister Namumba
 MADs are given to journalists who have irresponsibly reported on children and have compromised their rights and welfare.
The following engagement took place between News24 and MMA
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has accused News24 of failing to protect protesting children in a report (https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/hoerskool-jan-viljoen-sgb-appoints-independent-team-to-probe-racism-allegations-at-school-20220220). The report was about students protesting incidents of racism outside the Hoërskool Jan Viljoen. MMA writes:
“Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is compelled to give a MAD to News24 for the article titled, Hoerskool Jan Viljoen: SGB appoints independent team to probe allegations at school (20/02/2022) as the journalist went on to identify the protesting children whilst also omitting to include their views.”
A report should never be seen out of context and in isolation from other reports on the same topic. More about this later.
News24 subscribes to the South African Press Code. It states the following about reporting on children:
In the spirit of Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights the media shall:
8.1 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 without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child); and a public interest is evident;
8.2 not publish child pornography, and
8.3 not identify children who have been victims of abuse or exploitation, or who have been charged with or convicted of a crime, without the consent of their legal guardians (or a similarly responsible adult) and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child), a public interest is evident, and it is in the best interests of the child.
*Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution says: “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”
In the relevant report by News24, a video is also shown of protests by school children and other adult protesters outside the school, as well as the police trying to control the protests. Two parents are briefly interviewed but no protesting child is interviewed. Various scenes of what can be deduced as being students of the school are shown in which they hold various posters clearly stating their views. The wording of the posters is a form of expressing those children’s views, but their faces are not blurred.
MMA’s complaint is rather contradictory: it criticises News24 for not blurring the children’s faces so that they could not be identified, but also wants News24 to interview them to express their views.
I agree that the volatile situation of racism against black students at the school could perhaps lead to further intolerance towards the students shown in the video and that their faces not being blurred could perhaps lead to further racial slurs. However, there is no evidence for this. These children were expressing their fundamental human rights and chose not to have their faces covered.
Children have over years become more active in participating in protests and the media worldwide, also in South Africa, have shown their faces. Two classic examples come to mind: the Soweto student uprising of 1976 in which hundreds of press photographs showed the students in which they could be clearly identified. One could ask, should the iconic picture by Sam Nzima of Hector Peterson in the arms of another student have been censored so that the student carrying him, not be identified, as well as the schoolgirl running with him? Or any of the other pictures of protesting students in which they can be clearly identified? Here are two examples:
Another more recent example is the pictures shown worldwide in the media where the youth protested against climate change in 2021. The names of the activists and the faces of the students were shown clearly, amidst the hundreds of posters expressing their views about climate change.
In both these examples, the youth and children protesting could have been harmed by respectively the apartheid police, and the often violent rightwing who don’t believe climate change takes place. In fact, Greta Thunberg and her co-leaders have been threatened and vilified many times by climate change denialists but they still believe their case is so strong that they are prepared for their identity to be clearly shown and known. One could ask, is this not the same with the children holding the posters against racism outside the school?
The students with their posters outside Hoërskool Jan Viljoen, were expressing their views as reflected by the posters. Views expressed do not necessarily have to be through oral interviews, but holding up posters saying “Black children matter”, “Dear Dian, we are not K******”, and “Panyaza, you know the pain” is clearly another way of applying your freedom of expression.
One could ask, was it not in the public interest to allow these children, victims of racism, to express their views, even if it is only through their posters? There was no indication that they did not want to be identified, otherwise they could, for example, have worn masks which at that stage was still a requirement to counter the Covid pandemic.
On the issue of representing children’s voices:
It’s unfair to look at this article in isolation when News24 produced several pieces on the issue in which children’s voices were included while also protecting their identity. This article was a follow-up to an ongoing story. Please see below two examples of articles where News24 did indeed include children’s voices:
I do not think News24 contravened the Press Code and that it endangered the children carrying those posters by not blurring their faces. Sometimes, as with the Soweto uprising, and the climate change protests, children become the voices of conscience of society at large. To cover their faces would have in some way diminished the seriousness of their protests. They wanted to have their say and were brave enough to do it openly. The posters they were carrying expressed those views. To target News24 reporting this fundamental human right as protected by our Constitution, is rather unfair.
Thank you for your response to our commentary, there are a few issues that we picked up from your response that we would like to further respond to.
Firstly, we would like to mention that in our Make Abuse Disappear Online Accountability Tool (MADOAT) project, we monitor all content on children from most media but only highlight through our commentaries violations (which form part of MADs) and exceptional reporting (GLADs). With GLADs, the journalist must have gone beyond standard practice on reporting on children which includes but not limited to mentioning why the child’s identity has been withheld or extensively quoting a child in an article, for instance. Anything short of this is regarded as standard practice by the media when reporting on children. It must be noted and emphasised that MMA has indeed awarded News24 several GLADs over the years for reporting that was exceptional and/or protected or promoted children’s rights, as can be confirmed by the News Editor.
Further, while there are instances where we have analysed articles as a collective, we try to avoid this and instead analyse an article in isolation especially if there have been different issues of concern that have been picked up. This is the reason why this article was selected and analysed in isolation from other articles on the issue.
We agree that the “wording of the posters is a form of expressing those children’s views”. However, we are of the view that the journalist could have also obtained views from the children, not just on the issue of racism as the placards show, but also on the issue being reported in the article – the appointment of a team to investigate the racism allegations. MMA feels while the main issue is racism allegations at Hoerskool Van Viljoen, different sub-issues have been reported by different journalists at News24. For instance, and using the examples you have shared in your response, Lwandile Bhengu wrote about the actual issue of racism and the pupils protesting in “WATCH | Hoërskool Jan Viljoen: Black and coloured pupils say they feel racially targeted at the school”. Alfonso Ngunjana on the other hand wrote about tear gas and rubber bullets being fired by police at protesting learners and parents in “Tear gas, rubber bullets fired at protesting parents and pupils at Gauteng school accused of racism”. It would have made the story even more powerful had News24 spoken to the children to get their views on the different aspects of the issue. Furthermore, the articles shared had children’s views expressed on placards and yet the children were still interviewed. Why then couldn’t the same principle be applied to the article MMA wrote about?
Children have rights to express their views and voice their opinions on matters affecting them. These rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in article 13 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child ACRWC). South Africa ratified the UNCRC and the ACRWC in 1995 and 2000 respectively. In addition, Chapter 2 (16) of the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution provides for the right to freedom of expression to everyone and this is interpreted to include children. Among the rights outlined in that Section is the right to “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas”.
You state in your response to our commentary that “MMA’s complaint is rather contradictory: it criticises News24 for not blurring the children’s faces so that they could not be identified, but also wants News24 to interview them to express their views”. We still maintain that News24 could have interviewed the protesting children to get their views on the matter. We submit that there are creative ways of getting views from children while protecting them from harm, including potential harm such as further trauma, victimisation, retribution etc. In this case, and as suggested in our commentary, News24 could have interviewed the children while blurring their faces.
You agree that “the volatile situation of racism against black students at the school could perhaps lead to further intolerance towards the students shown in the video and their faces not blurred could perhaps lead to further racial slurs” yet the children were still identified. To this you state in your response that the pupils “chose not to have their faces covered” and “could have, for example, worn masks”.
Did the journalist obtain informed consent from the children and their parents/guardians to have the children’s identities revealed? Did the journalist explain to the children the potential consequences of having their identities revealed? If there was no opportunity to explain the potential consequences to the children and no consent was obtained, why didn’t the journalist act in the best interest of the children by blurring their faces in the video? Section 28 (2) of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution calls for all actions involving children to have the children’s best interest.
MMA submits that it is the journalists’ responsibility to inform the story subject of the potential harm that might come to them as a result of being identified in the media when obtaining consent, especially if the subject is a child. It is also the journalist’s responsiblity to act in the best interest of children when deciding whether to reveal the children’s identity.
We reiterate clause 8.1 from the Press Code, which you also shared in your response, “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 without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child); and a public interest is evident;” (Our emphasis) Given the risk of harm to the children, we believe it was in their best interests to blur their faces. We also note that doing so would not in any way undermine the news value or any other aspect of the story.
In addition, the story reports that a teacher was suspended to allow for investigations into allegations of sexual abuse. While there is no evidence that the children in the video were victims/survivors or witnesses of the incident, merely mentioning it and showing them in the story may cause them harm by association. Again the potential for harm weighed against the best interest of the child and telling the story would suggest the children’s faces should have been blurred.
Regarding “the contradiction” you reference in our approach, we respectfully disagree. Asking that the faces of children are blurred to minimise harm and also asking that children’s voices are heard is not a contradiction but a way of further adding depth to the story and ensuring that children’s agency is recognised.
In your response, you include two examples of protesting learners who were identified and also go on to give examples of other children who have been identified “worldwide in the media”. These are indeed famous images, and the one of Hector Peterson features in the course we run on reporting on children. We do not suggest that children’s identify may never be shown or that there aren’t circumstances where there is a clear public interest in showing them. But in South Africa now, where there has already been violence at the school and where tensions were running very high, the public interest is not undermined in anyway by blurring the faces of the children. All that would have done is helped minimise harm which is what journalists should as a default seek to do. We also note that other media may have identified children, or just because other protesting children have been identified does not mean that these protesting children should be identified. The basis of the Best Interest of the child test is subjective and is based on a consideration of the best interests of each individual child and not the class of children as a whole. Further, simply because an action has been done several times does not make it right and does not mean that each and every story that is done on children doesn’t need to adhere to ethical and legal frameworks of reporting on children. We emphasise that this case is different especially that there are burning issues of racism, that violence has already occurred and the matter is further complicated by the knowledge that there is also a case of sexual harassment.
Leaving the video and photographs in the story online exposes the learners to potential harm such as victimisation and retribution. We therefore request that News24 urgently blurs the faces of the protesting children from the video and all accompanying photographs. We ask that an explanation be given to the News24 audience as to why the decision to withdraw the children’s identities was taken – including but not limited to the fact that this is to protect the children from harm.
We write to News24 on the basis that as media, we would like News24 to be at the forefront of protecting children and not being the cause of future harm to the already vulnerable of our much damaged South African society. We look forward to your response. In the spirit of constructive engagement we are also open to engaging face to face on these issues, as we believe we share common goals in realising quality journalism.