Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) gives a MAD[1] to Sowetan for publishing a story in which a child who was allegedly raped was interviewed extensively about her experiences.

The story headlined, “Girl (13) raped and forced to abort the baby” (Sowetan, 24/10/2018, p.4), reports on a young girl who was allegedly raped on different occasions by both her uncle and her aunt’s boyfriend, with whom she lived. According to the story, the first rape occurred when her grandmother was away. This incident was witnessed by other children who later told the child’s grandmother what they had seen. The grandmother reportedly told them to never speak about it again. When it became clear that the child was pregnant, the aunt and the grandmother allegedly gave the 13-year-old girl pills to terminate the pregnancy. The foetus was reportedly then placed in a plastic bag and dumped the next morning. When the girl’s stepmother was told about the abortion, she alerted the police. In the article, the girl’s father who is reported to financially support all the relatives living in the house, including the grandmother, the aunt and the uncle, scorns their complicity in the abuse. The uncle appeared in court on charges of rape, but the case was postponed as the police are investigating the allegations of sexual assault by the boyfriend to the child’s aunt. The aunt and grandmother are also expected to face charges of defeating the ends of justice.

To begin, it is essential that we understand the incredibly tough circumstances that journalists often find themselves in and the types of harrowing stories that they are often expected to cover. Ongoing issues such as poverty, abuse and violence all form the mainstay of media coverage and it is from this frame that we commend the efforts taken by the journalist and publication to delve deeper into this story, despite how horrific it was. Importantly, we would also like to recognise the steps taken to protect the identities of those involved. In this case, it was clear that the journalist went above and beyond by not only deliberately avoiding to show the faces of the girl and her mother in the photograph accompanying the article and instead opting to show their backs, but also by explicitly stating that the father “… cannot be named to protect the identity of the victim”. We continuously call on journalists to share with their readers why they are choosing to not disclose the identities of those in their stories and this report offers a great example of good practice in this regard.

Although the publication has kept within the ambit of the law by not revealing the identities of the child victim and child witnesses, interviewing the 13-year-old remains incredibly problematic. The series of traumatic events experienced by the girl, including the rapes by her uncle, the rapes by her aunt’s boyfriend, the distress of potentially contracting HIV and the non-consensual termination of her pregnancy, are all documented extensively and often in the girls’ own words. While we appreciate that the story must be told, interviewing a child under these circumstances opens up the potential for secondary trauma and therefore should be avoided until such a time when the child has undergone counselling and a trained counsellor has determined that the child is fit to be interviewed about her ordeal. MMA advises that the child must still be interviewed in the presence of a trained counsellor even if they underwent counselling beforehand.

Interviewing the girl contravenes Section 8.1.1. of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South Africa Print and Online Media[2] which states “If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child,  he or she shall not be interviewed… without the consent of a legal guardian….and a public interest is evident..”

By the same token, the story also violates MMA’s Editorial Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Children in the Media[3] (see p.7) which states “…journalists must demonstrate extreme care to ensure their reporting does not cause further harm, secondary trauma, distress…”. In this case, it would be difficult to argue that interviewing this girl about such painful experiences would not result in potential secondary trauma. With this, we would urge Sowetan to carefully consider whether interviewing children about violent experiences adds value to the stories given the potential risks to the children’s wellbeing.     

MMA’s approach is to commend good work when journalists excel and to offer constructive criticism when journalists falter. While it is great to see such an in-depth story where the children’s identities were rightly protected, steps should have been taken to avoid crossing ethical lines, especially when the accessing of information may put the child at risk of further harm.

We look forward to seeing more child-centred stories from Sowetan where the best interests of the child are promoted!

By Sarah Findlay

[1] MADs refer to stories where the rights and welfare of children have been compromised through irresponsible reporting