A number of newspapers reported on the sad murder of a prominent figure in August 2009.Sowetan’s article, “Anguish of Murdered [ ]’s wife and son”1 (14/08/09, p. 4), about the murder received a MAD OAT Mad nomination for directly identifying a child witness, the prominent figure’s child, where other newspapers had not included this information.
The article reported that the prominent figure’s 14-year old son ran outside with his mother after hearing gunshots and found his father lying on the ground. It stated that the son “saw two people running away”, referring to the alleged perpetrators.
The son is both directly named and identified as a witness in criminal proceedings. Providing this information contravenes Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 which states:
“No person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity of the accused under the age of 18 years or of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.”
In addition, naming and identifying the child as a witness could expose him to harm, particularly as the suspects have not yet been apprehended by the police.
Children from Park Senior and Eastgate Primary Schools2 were asked what they thought about the article. Nocebo Khanyile from Eastgate Primary School said that the child was a witness in the story because he “saw two guys running away.” When asked if the story was in the best interests of the child, Brittany Francesca from Park Senior Primary School said that it was not as “the child saw the killers and they [the criminals] could go after him.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) stresses that journalists should be extremely cautious in their reporting on children, especially in deciding what information to include or exclude. This story shows what may seem like innocuous information may actually expose a child to harm.
As there were discrepancies in reporting across different newspapers on whether it was the son or daughter who ran up to the father, it is not clear exactly what happened. However, both The Citizenand The Star reported the story without mention of a child witness.
For example, The Citizen, in “[ ] gunned down”, (14/08/09, p. 6) reported on the murder without providing details of the crime scene. It was stated only that the Captain investigating the crime “…declined to reveal further details but the motive of the shooting was unknown and that a murder case had been opened.” The Star, in “Talented [ ] killed in robbery”, (14/08/09, p. 2) also did not mention a child witness. It just stated that the child (in this case the daughter) ran to her father and asked, “Daddy, will you be okay?”.
Such reporting gives the reader enough information about the investigation without putting the child at risk or contravening legislation.
MMA hopes that more caution will be exercised by Sowetan when reporting on similar issues, so that children’s rights to protection are fully safeguarded.
Sowetan were notified of the Mad nomination and given the opportunity to respond, but did not reply.
1Due to the need to protect the identity of the child witness, MMA has concealed any information in the featured articles that may directly or indirectly identify him.
2As part of its Empowering Children and the Media Strategy, MMA has been working with learners in three schools in Johannesburg, developing their knowledge of children’s rights and their skills in media monitoring. They have been monitoring newspapers, radio and television, and monitored this article. For more information on this project, contact MMA.