Special Assignment is an award winning programme, and over the last few months many of the programmes have focused on matters relating to children and child abuse, exposing a number of instances where a failure to act by the police or a failure in the justice system has resulted in children’s rights being violated. The programme aired on Tuesday 13 January 2009 also highlighted a case of child abuse. While it is commendable to expose failures by those in positions of responsibility to protect a child, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is of the view that not only hasSpecial Assignment violated Section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Act, it has failed to uphold standards of ethical journalism by identifying an abused child and the two other children of the abused child’s mother.

The programme focuses on a particular case of a young child who is now five-years old and living at a home that cares for children with brain injuries. The child has apparently been left brain damaged and paralysed following “negligence and abuse” by his parents. Despite a previous incident of suspected abuse, a social worker had made the decision to return him to his parents. Subsequent to this he was admitted to hospital and suffered brain damage. The programme, in addition to giving an account of the alleged abuse and negligence, questions who is “to blame”, and interviews, or attempts to interview, a number of key players including hospital staff, the department of social development, the prosecutor, the mother, and staff at the home where the child is staying. According to the programme, the case has not been resolved in the courts, but is ongoing.

Throughout the programme, the child, both a survivor of abuse and a witness in criminal proceedings, is clearly identified. His face is visible, his full name and other details are given, including where he stays and his mother’s name. This is in contrast to the treatment of other children in the programme residing at the home whose faces are obscured.


Given that child sustained brain damage as a consequence of the abuse, and he was not in the position to provide informed consent himself, extra care should have been taken to ensure that his best interests were protected. This should include ensuring there is no further harm to him and that all measures are taken to protect his privacy and dignity.

According to the United Convention on the Rights of the Child, the best interests of the child are paramount in any matter concerning the child. This ethical principle should underlie journalistic practice. It is not clear what justification can be provided for identifying the child together with the details of his abuse, which seems to constitute a violation of his privacy and dignity.

It might be argued that those who are in a position to know the best interests of the child, and who are caring for him or supporting him, including the prosecutor, and the staff at the home, were consulted and involved in the making of the documentary. However, it is not clear from the programme whether anyone has been legally appointed to look after the child, other than his parents, and therefore whether they were in the position to make such decisions relating to the child.

Regardless of any consultation, the Criminal Procedure Act clearly specifies that the identity of a child witness should not be revealed, either directly or indirectly.

The documentary could have been made in a way which protected the identity, privacy, and dignity of the child, while still holding to account those who were responsible for his abuse and neglect.

The programme does have merit in that it attempts to investigate and uncover who is responsible for the child abuse and neglect, together with the situation the child is now in. It identified some of the key players, including the parents, the social worker, hospital staff, and the legal and social care system, looking at what roles and responsibilities they have taken. The programme highlights the procedures the hospital staff followed to try and protect the child, and the commitment and good work of other individuals, groups and organisations, including the home where the child stays, the “adoptive” family that visit him, and the state prosecutor.  The programme also highlights the justice system’s apparent failure to prosecute the parents.

The programme also accessed many of the professionals involved in the case, and got the mother’s side of the story. In doing so, however, it also identified the two children who are in the custody of the mother. By “naming and shaming” the mother, and then identifying these children, due consideration has not been given to the best interests of these children, who as a consequence may experience victimisation, bullying, and humiliation. Their rights to privacy and dignity have been violated, in the interest of shaming the mother.

The journalists’ intentions may have been noble, to bring attention to a case of child abuse and the failure of those in positions of responsibility to protect the child.  However, it is not clear at the end of the programme where the failed responsibilities are, what procedures should have been followed, what lessons have been learned, and ultimately how the programme can serve the child’s best interests.

To conclude, while Special Assignment bought attention to a case of child abuse, and investigated to some extent what went wrong, it did so in a way which further violated the rights of the child, and missed an important opportunity to establish what the proper procedures should be in such cases.