Sowetan is congratulated by the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) for its coverage of the case involving an 11-year old girl, neglected by her mother, who was allegedly forced into prostitution to support herself and her siblings. The story, covered by Elisha Molefe and Sibongile Mashabe, first appeared in Sowetan on 25 August 2008 (“Our shame: Girl (11) sells herself to older men for sex to feed two younger brothers”, 25/08/08, p. 1 and p. 4) and was followed up on 26 and 27 August 2008 and 4 and 5 September 2008, in both articles and editorials. The coverage exposes a case of child neglect and abuse, and through its investigation and follow up, helps to ensure that those in positions of responsibility protect the children’s rights and welfare.
The case involves the violation of a number of children’s rights, including rights to family, parental, or alternative care ; to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services ; to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation , to be protected from exploitative practices ; and not to be required or permitted to perform work or provide services that are inappropriate for a person of that child’s age or place at risk the child’ well-being, education, physical or mental health or spiritual, moral or social development .
The repeated coverage brought this case to the attention of readers, and those in positions of responsibility for children’s care and protection. The situation seems to have since been happily resolved by the placement of this girl and her siblings into a place of safety.
The coverage extends beyond a one-off sensational story, to include a number of follow up articles and editorials, over the period of a couple of weeks. The pieces (stories and editorials) showed a rare degree of investigation, held various people and society as a whole accountable for the position the girl was in, maintained editorial pressure on authorities until the girl was rescued, and made some attempt to protect the identities of the children. However, MMP and one of the children consulted feels that the child could still be identified by someone who knew her.
Rare degree of investigation
The initial story, “Our shame: Girl (11) sells herself to older men for sex to feed two younger brothers” (25/08/08, p. 1 and p. 4), included interviews with neighbours, the mother, the police, and the Department for Social Development. This amount of investigation is unusual in a news story.
Holding society and authorities accountable
Sowetan also holds those in positions of responsibility, at varying levels, to account in their failing to provide protection and care for the girl and her siblings. By using the words “our shame” in the headline, and through its editorial on 27 September 2008, Sowetan also takes the position that the nation as a whole, our society, is responsible for the wellbeing of children:
“What has happened to our sense of community when children in child-headed families are left to their own devices? What has happened to ubuntu?…Where parenthood has failed, our communities must stand up to fill the void. Save the children and save our future”. (“Sowetan Says: We must fill the void”, 27/08/08, p.16)
The follow-up stories and editorials suggest that Sowetan took some responsibility and interest in promoting and protecting the rights and welfare of the children, by ensuring some positive outcome came out of the story.
The initial article spurred readers to respond with pledges of food, clothes and money for the children. Sowetan facilitated assistance from readers by providing details of where to contact and give donations to (“If you want to help”, 26/08/08, p. 4).
Following the publication of the story, actions were taken by those in formal positions of responsibility, including the police and the Department of Social Development, to protect the children’s best interests. This included the arrest of the mother for neglect, the provision of counseling for her, and moving the children to a place of safety.
The editorials not only encouraged the authorities to take the necessary action to protect the children, but also included suggestions to prevent child grant abuse. For example, the editor suggested: “A strict monitoring system involving social workers still offers the best solution to the problem” (“Sowetan Says: Shameful Abuse”, 25/08/08, p. 10).
In another editorial, written after the children had been removed to a place of safety, the editor stresses the importance of a “sustainable solution” for the children to ensure there is not a repeat of the situation the children found themselves in (“Sowetan Says: Destitute kids need help”, 05/09/08, p.16).
While it would be difficult to establish a direct link between Sowetan’s coverage and the actions of the authorities, it is uncertain whether there would have been the same outcome had the story not been consistently covered in this manner. The coverage is likely to be responsible for at least some of the aid that has flowed in for the children.
Protected the identity of the children
Measures were taken by Sowetan to protect the identity of the children, and thereby their privacy and dignity. These include the use of pseudonyms, and partly or wholly obscuring faces through the use of black strips, blurring, or shooting the photograph from the back.
Many children who participate of the Children’s Media Mentoring Project appreciated the fact that the identities of the children were protected in Sowetan,“Our shame: Girl (11) sells herself to older men for sex to feed two younger brothers”, 25/08/08, p. 1 and p. 4). When MMP asked them what they liked about the story, and whether any rights were protected or violated. many of them commented that the story protected the child’s rights to privacy, and protected her identity, because it did not use real names, or show “eyes” and “faces” (Children’s Media Mentoring Project, September 2008).
While these measures were taken, it does seem that more could have been done to tell the story in a way which more fully protected the privacy and dignity of the children.
Given that the 11-year old girl has experienced abuse, and, at the time, was not under the care or protection of an adult to ensure her best interests are considered, it is all the more important to ensure that her privacy and dignity are not compromised in any way whatsoever. It seems that another image may have better protected the identity of the child, rather than the photograph of the 11-year old girl taken from the back. The photograph was used on the front-page of Sowetan(25/08/08) and in the inside story (26/08/08, p. 4). Other, less revealing, images could have been used, through creative photography, possibly just the back of her head without the background, which could be familiar to some people.
Similar comments can be made about other photographs of the children published by Sowetan on 25 August 2008, page 4. MMP has previously commented on the use of black strips over eyes as an insufficient measure to protect children’s identities .
One of the child monitors MMP spoke with thought the story was bad because it violated the child’s right to privacy, “…her secret will be everybody’s business and people will tease her”. The same child commented that the address and town were mentioned in the story. Another child said, “I don’t like the picture [“Our shame: Girl (11) sells herself to older men for sex to feed two younger brothers”, 25/08/08, p. 1] because somehow it shows the girl’s identity”, and commented that the reporter did not protect the child’s right to privacy. A few of the children, when asked if they would change anything about the story, said they would change the picture (Children’s Media Mentoring Project, September 2008).
Asked for her comments on the front-page photograph (“Our shame: Girl (11) sells herself to older men for sex to feed two younger brothers”, 25/08/08, p. 1 and p. 4), one of our child’s rights experts, Penny Ward, wrote:
“I think this is a ‘border line’ photo – it meets the very basic requirements of confidentiality/anonymity. But it does not do anything else. It does not seek to present a positive/empowering image of children, especially girls. For a front page photo – I think it is too revealing. You don’t have to see someone’s face to be able to identify them. So, in general, it falls short of what images in the media can do for children’s rights – without overtly breaking any rules” (September 2008).
Sowetan also gave the details of the place where the children were moved to (“Abandoned kids taken to safety”, 04/09/08, p. 4). This was not necessary to the story, and could potentially expose the children to further abuse.
Overall, Sowetan did an outstanding job, but missed best practice children’s journalism by not considering the best interests of the child in every decision that was made, including the kind of photograph used and how these were edited.
1. Chapter 2, the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. 1996. Act No. 108. Section 28, 1b.
2. Ibid. 1c.
3. Ibid. 1d.
4. Ibid. 1e.
5. Ibid. 1f.
6. See MAD OAT (2008) “Black strips over eyes are not enough to protect identities”.