Over the week beginning 14 February 2009, several newspapers carried a story on a teenage girl falling pregnant to a 12-year old boy in the United Kingdom (UK). Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is deeply troubled by the consistent failure of newspapers carrying the report, including Saturday Star(“Teenage mom shared room, bed with dad (12)”, 14/02/09, p. 3), Sunday Times (“Baby Daddy Shock”,15/02/09, p. 14), Sunday Independent (“Outrage over baby faced dad”, 15/02/09, p. 3), andThe Times (“Junior dads claim baby”, 16/2/09, p. 9), to protect the identity of the children concerned1.
Saturday Star (14/02/09, p. 3), Sunday Times (15/02/09, p.14), Sunday Independent (15/02/09, p. 3), and The Times (16/2/09, p. 9) all provided the first and last names of the two children. The Sunday Independent and Sunday Times went so far as to also provide photographs of the teenage parents.
Largely derived from foreign sources and press agencies, the reports all cover how a girl and boy became parents at the ages of 15 and 13 years old respectively. The contents of the various reports range from highlighting the high teenage pregnancy rate in the UK, and claims to the reason for this, to the responses of the boy’s father and the shocked reactions of the public. A few of the reports also appear to either ridicule the young father, his apparent immaturity and lack of life experience (Saturday Star, Sunday Independent, The Times), or subtly denigrate the mother by also reporting on other boys who claimed to have had sexual intercourse with the girl and therefore intimating promiscuity (The Times).
According to South African legislation, sexual intercourse between two children between the ages of 12 and 16 is an offense regardless of consent2. Though the legislation does allow for consideration of the circumstances to determine whether prosecution is a reasonable action.
South African legislation also requires that media cannot reveal, directly or indirectly, the identities of children who are either the accused or witnesses at a criminal proceeding3.
Though the children in question have not been prosecuted for an offense in the UK, they would be considered to have committed an offense according to South African law.
Significantly, while foreign laws around children engaging in underage sex may differ to South Africa, the underlying ethical principles remain the same. These apply to children, wherever they may, and whatever nationality they may have.
All conventions and guidelines stress that the very position of being a child requires appreciation for their vulnerability and protection of their privacy. A child is a child here in South Africa or elsewhere in the world.
The laws regarding sexual intercourse between children, and the protection of identity, have been created or amended in recognition that particular care must be extended to children, and that laws must be in line with the “best interests of the child” principle.
This principle has been articulated in international conventions (e.g. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 4), South African legislation (e.g. The Children’s Act, 2005) 5, and the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996). These require that, “A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child” (Constitution of South Africa, 1996)6.
Ethical guidelines for journalists and media organisations also stress the rights of children, and particularly children’s absolute right to privacy (International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 1998).
Children’s Rights and Media: Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children, also known as the Guidelines of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), state that journalists and media organisations should “avoid the use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children”, and “consider carefully the consequences of publication of any material concerning children and shall minimise harm to children” (IFJ,1998)7.
Given the attention devoted to the story, and the reported high levels of teenage pregnancies in the UK, it seems that key questions have been overlooked. For example, the reports could have looked into why teenage pregnancies are occurring at such levels in the UK, what circumstances led to these two children becoming parents, and what the capacity of these children to be parents is, in light of the broader theme of teenage pregnancy.
Unfortunately, rather than doing these issues justice, and including relevant research findings, most sited instead the opinions of conservative political leaders and the public, which carried personal attitudes on morals and what is “right and wrong”.
By focusing on opinions, sensationalising the children’s sexuality, focusing on their apparent immaturity and identifying them, the newspapers fail to demonstrate any efforts to minimise harm or protect the children’s rights to privacy and dignity.
This lack of sensitivity is clearly not in the best interests of the children, whose lives and sexuality have become fodder for the international press and tabloid reading for consumers.
There can be no justification for the media’s treatment of these children, either on grounds that the information was drawn from international agencies, or on grounds that the reports are about non-South African children.
Media, through their editors, choose what reports and what content to provide to their consumers. It was incumbent on editors, to remove any information, including imagery, which could identify or belittle the children concerned.
This is not an isolated failure by media. MMA has noted previous cases where media have failed to protect the identities of non-South African children when they were ethically required to do so (see previous MAD OAT Mad commentaries).
Recently, in their reporting of an incident in the United States where an 11-year old boy shot the pregnant partner of his father, The Times (“Boy kills pregnant woman”, 23/02/09, p. 8) and The Star(“Boy (11) held after dad’s girlfriend slain”, 23/02/09, p. 4) both revealed the child’s identity 8. The Times went so far as to also provide the photograph taken when he was charged with criminal homicide. While the boy was being charged as an adult, all legal and ethical considerations for protection of identity remain, as these do not make any exceptions based on how the child is charged.
MMA calls upon all media, particularly those analysed here, to recognise children as requiring special consideration, and to ensure that in their reporting they safeguard ALL children’s rights to protection, dignity and sensitivity. We ask that they review all guidelines relating to reporting on children (obtainable on the MMA website), and ensure they uphold the standards of their profession. MMA works regularly with media and we extend the invitation to any journalist or editor to contact us should they have any questions or concerns over content in their reports on children.
1 MMA has concealed names and faces to protect the identities of the children.
2 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007, Ch. 3, Part 1, S.15(1).
3 Criminal Procedure Act, No. 51 of 1977, Ch. 22, S.154 (3).
4 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.1989 (entered into force 1990). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Geneva, Switzerland.
5 The Children’s Act. 2005. Cape Town: Republic of South Africa. Ch.2, S.6: General Principles.
6 The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.1996. Ch. 2, S.28 (2).
7 International Federation of Journalists. 1998. Children’s Rights and Media: Guidelines and Principles for Reporting on Issues Involving Children .
8 MMA has concealed names and faces to protect the identities of the children.