Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is deeply disappointed with the Sowetan story “Man threatens to slit daughter’s throat” (11/11/08, p. 7). A 4-year old child whose father held her hostage and threatened to kill her is named and identified through a photo accompanying the article. This breaches both law on child witnesses and ethical practice in reporting on children.

The article relates the almost day-long crisis which saw the young girl being held hostage by her father on a rooftop. The child had a knife held to her throat, and was crying hysterically until her father was persuaded to release her.

Clearly, the child suffered significant trauma at the hands of her father, who is likely to be charged with having committed criminal acts by taking her hostage and threatening her with death.

Sowetan names all members of the child’s family in addition to the child, and pictures the child just after her release. In doing so, Sowetan contravenes both South African law on identification of child witnesses to crime and standard ethical practice in reporting on children who have experienced trauma.

Section 154 (3) of the Criminal Procedure Act leaves no room for doubt in how child witnesses must be protected by media: “No person shall publish in any manner whatever any information which reveals or may reveal the identity of an accused under the age of eighteen years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of eighteen years…”.

This means that legally the Sowetan should not have named or provided an easily identifiable photo of the child.

Furthermore, ethical practice in reporting on children requires that media consider the best interests of the child when reporting on matters that directly relate to them, particularly in cases where children have suffered trauma.

Ethical practice in reporting on children is in alignment with the South African Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The principles and practice are clearly set out in “All sides of the story. Reporting on children: A journalist’s handbook”. (Media Monitoring Project & UNICEF, 2003).

Ethical practice requires that reporters and photographers place the best interests of the child first, and consider the consequences of their actions. For example, in naming and picturing a child, they should consider the possibility of negative reprisals, and whether the visual may offend the child’s right to dignity.

While the child may not be noticeably upset in the photo of the Sowetan, a child at the age of four is not in a position to give permission for having her photo taken based on a considered opinion. As a consequence, her traumatic memory has been captured by the story for many years to come, with added possibility of unwelcome reminders from community members who may have seen the story in the newspaper.

MMA calls upon the Sowetan to pay close attention to both law and ethical practice in reporting on children. We hope that the paper, its reporters and photographers remember that the best interests of the child are paramount in every story that concerns them. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that children, as one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, are given special consideration and protection.