Sowetan’s article “Bail denied to rape suspect of 7-year-old” (Sowetan, 08/09/2010, p.6) gets a SUPER MAD from Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) for violating the rights of two children.

The main focus of the article is that a man who is accused of raping a 7-year-old was denied bail. The child in question was indirectly identified as Sowetan named the accused and described the child victim as “his seven-year-old neighbour”.

The United Nations Convention on the Right’s of the Child (Article 3) and the South African Constitution (Article 28.2) make clear that “in all actions concerning children… the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration”.

Sowetan’s own guidelines say that: “in [its] reporting on the lives and welfare of children, [it] undertake[s] to act in accordance with the Constitution and in appreciation of the vulnerable situation of children.”

Identifying a child who is allegedly a victim of rape is not in this child’s best interests as it could lead to stigmatisation, secondary abuse and trauma.

Publishing information that may reveal the identity of a child that is at the centre of a criminal case is also against the law as the child is a witness.

Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act states that:

“No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity … of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.”

This legislation makes clear that simply omitting the victim’s name is not sufficient to protect a child’s identity. A newspaper must not publish any details that may enable readers to work out who is involved. In this case people who know the neighbourhood, the victim or the accused may ascertain the child’s identity.

In addition to indirectly identifying the 7-year-old, Sowetan violated the child’s rights to dignity and privacy as enshrined in the South African Constitution (Articles 10 and 14). The article quoted investigating officer Constable Simon Mareletse describing to the court the manner in which the child was allegedly sexual assaulted.

The description was detailed and graphic, and republishing it simply because it was on the record in court does not seem to be sufficient justification, especially when the identity of the child in question was not adequately protected.

Sowetan’sown reporting guidelines say that journalists must “undertake to consider the consequences of [their] reporting to children, and to take steps, where appropriate, to minimise the harm.”  By publishing graphic details of what had allegedly happened to an abused child, Sowetanfailed in its responsibility “to minimise harm.”

In addition to violating the rights of the young child at the centre of this case, Sowetan failed a second child in this article.

By publishing that the accused, who was named, “was arrested last year for the alleged rape of his 17-year-old step daughter” and that this “case was later withdrawn after the alleged victim dropped the charges” Sowetan again indirectly identified a child. This could expose this child to stigmatisation and secondary abuse. Sowetan ignored his step-daughter’s right to dignity and privacy. It also failed in its duty under the newspaper’s own guidelines to “consider the consequences of” indirectly identifying her and “to minimise harm”.

It is of great concern to MMA that an article which is just nine sentences long can be guilty of so many violations of children’s rights.