Over the last couple of weeks, and since MAD OAT urged Sowetan to “Stop identifying child witnesses”, a couple of articles (“Boy stabbed at school in ‘racist attack’”, 23/09/2009, p. 7 and“‘Trigger-happy’ police”, 30/09/09, p. 4) have come to Media Monitoring Africa 1 (MMA)’s attention which failed to protect the identity of child witnesses 2.
“‘Trigger-happy’ police” reported on how police allegedly fired bullets into a crowd during service delivery protests, in Mashishing Township in Mpumalanga, and shot a toddler, a child, a teenager and three adults. Reportedly, a lawyer is suing the police on behalf of the alleged victims, the Police Minister’s office has been served with a statutory notice, and a summons is to be issued.
The alleged victims, including the three-year old, six-year old, and a teenager (whose age is not specified) are named, and photographs of the children (and teenager) are also provided.
While Sowetan should be commended for bringing the alleged incidents to the public’s attention, and holding police to account for their actions, the identification of the child victims is questionable, on legal and ethical grounds.
Legislation alone specifies that the identity of a child witness (in this case the victims), should not be revealed. This is regardless of whether any consent has been provided by the child or guardian.
This legislation, like other legislation and guidelines which impacts on children, is underpinned by the principle that the best interests of the child are paramount.
While the circumstances of Sowetan ’s decision to identify the children are not known, it is not clear how identifying child witnesses, in this story, is either necessary or demonstrably in the best interests of the children, legislation aside.
In relation to identification and the Criminal Procedure Act, MMA advices; “Revealing these details may not always be clearly legal or illegal, but should be determined on an ethical and human rights basis, by protecting the child’s rights to dignity and privacy” (Media Monitoring Project and Institute for the Advancement of Journalism 2005: 6 3).
MMA’s Guidelines for reporting on and interviewing children, recommended by the South African Editors Forum (SANEF) driven by the best interests of the child, ask the reporter to consider what harm could occur if a child is named, what naming the child adds to the story, and what alternatives to identification have been considered (Media Monitoring Project and Institute for the Advancement of Journalism 2005:25-26 4). It is recommended:
“The journalist should continuously evaluate the decision to name a child, always test the value of information against the harm caused to the child” (Media Monitoring Project and Institute for the Advancement of Journalism 2005: 26 5).
The story could have been reported without identifying the witnesses through, for example, the use of pseudonyms and alternative photographs.
As potential witnesses against the police, the children need to be protected from any potential repercussions that media exposure and identification may bring, such as intimidation, victimisation or actual harm, by those who have an interest in the outcome of the case.
In another story, “Boy stabbed at school in ‘racist attack’”, a 16-year old was reportedly stabbed by his classmates in a racist attack, and “fears going back to school”. According to the article, one suspect was arrested by police, and it is hoped that more arrests will follow. The 16-year old boy is named and photographed. It is not clear why he was identified.
According to MMA’s interpretation of the Criminal Procedure Act, criminal proceedings start the moment it is clear a crime has been committed, making the 16-year old a child witness, and therefore equally in need of protection as the accused .
Again, legislation is underpinned by the principle that the best interests of the child are paramount and ethical guidelines and principles apply.
The 16-year old needs protection against any possible repercussions, such as recrimination by those directly involved or who have an interest in the outcome of the case.
While MMA understands that the decisions made by newspapers and other media are driven by various interests and pressures, MMA reiterate that in reporting on children, the best interests of the child remain paramount in deciding whether to protect or conceal children’s identities.
1 Formerly Media Monitoring Project.
2 MMA has concealed any details which could be used to identify the child witnesses.
3 Media Monitoring Project (MMP) and Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ). 2005. A Resource Kit for Journalists: Children’s Media Mentoring Project. MMP and IAJ: Johannesburg.
NB. Sowetan were given the opportunity to respond by email, but no response was received.