It is always worrying to find an article that violates a child’s rights but when it appears that the same mistakes are being made by a number of newspapers, both national and provincial, and that these newspapers are failing in their ethical and legal obligations to act in the best interests of children, it a very serious concern.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is giving a MAD to Daily Sun, The Star, The Herald and Saturday Star for publishing articles that fail to respect vulnerable children’s rights privacy and dignity.
“Evil insects’ led to death…” (Daily Sun, 01/09/2010, p.4) is about a man who allegedly stabbed his wife to death in front of their seven-year-old son. The man then allegedly attempted to kill himself but survived.
According to the article “the family cannot be named because not all relatives have been informed”, yet it identified a neighbour and also carried a picture of her holding a photograph of the dead woman. This defeats the whole point of concealing the family’s name in the first instance. Worse still, the photograph indirectly identifies the seven-year-old boy who witnessed the killing.
This child has been through an incredibly traumatic experience, and it is clearly not in his best interests to be identified. Beyond the ethical concerns, Daily Sun is also legally compelled to protect the identity of this boy.
Under Section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act the media is prevented from directly or indirectly identifying a child witness to a crime, a legal obligation ignored in the reporting of this story.
“I saw my dad shoot mom and himself, says girl, 5” (The Star, 01/09/2010, p.2) reported a story of a man who allegedly shot his wife and turned the gun on himself. The Star also indirectly identified the couple’s five-year old daughter who witnessed the shooting. The Star does this by providing the names of the dead parents. Here again the newspaper failed in its obligations to protect this vulnerable child.
Likewise, The Herald article “Child abandonment probe follows robbery” (www.theherald.co.za, 13/08/2010) named and identified child witnesses to a crime. The children aged ten and three were robbed and beaten after reportedly being left alone in their home. Interestingly, the article notes that “the police refused to give the name of the mother, saying she was a suspect in a criminal investigation”. However the children, who were also entitled to legal protection, were not afforded the same privilege. There appears to be no logic behind this discrepancy.
In “Youth linked to parents’ deaths remorseful” (Saturday Star, 04/09/2010, p.5), Saturday Star also directly identified the younger siblings of an eighteen-year-old boy who allegedly hired hit-men to kill his parents. Why Saturday Star thought it appropriate to give the names and ages of the younger siblings is unclear. Neither child should not have been directly or indirectly identified. It is bad enough that these children have lost their parents, and that their brother is accused of murder, but they should not be forced to endure this traumatic experience under media scrutiny. Details of the young siblings should have been omitted from the article, or the names or all parties should have been left out.
Identifying child witnesses indirectly or directly may have serious ramifications for children. Being publically associated with a crime may lead to secondary trauma, victimisation by their peers, and/or pressure from those against whom they may have to testify. Giving evidence against family members is especially difficult and having to do this in the full glare of the media is neither fair nor appropriate.
While every story is different and there is no formula for the “perfect” story, the media must strive to ensure the dignity and rights of every child are respected in every circumstance. This can be done through using pseudonyms, by choosing to leave out information that would suggest children were involved or that would identify them, or by simply omitting the names of all the parties involved .
Given that South Africa is not only a signatory to a range of international treaties which deal with children’s rights, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has a constitution that gives more protection to children as a special category, an Office on the Rights of the Child in the Presidency, a National Plan of Action for children and laws and regulations that are aimed at protecting children, one would hope that the media would be aware of their ethical and legal obligations when reporting on children.
These articles in Daily Sun, The Star, The Herald and Saturday Star clearly show that legislation and international conventions must exist, not only on paper, but in practice and that society, including the media, must play its role in respecting, facilitating, fulfilling and protecting children’s rights.