The launch of the Press Freedom Commission’s report on press regulation in South Africa is significant for a number of reasons.
It has done away with a waiver – which means that if you follow the Press Council process you can still also go to the courts for redress.
It has introduced a regime of sanctions including space fines and money fines. Space fines determine how much space on the page should be allocated, and money fines apply if a newspaper does not comply with the rulings.
It has also significantly altered the overall structure of the Press Council, and removed legal representation, which means ordinary citizens have a better chance.
Although all of these are important and need to be debated, perhaps the most significant is the focus on children.
The press code contained in the Press Freedom Commission’s report has gone beyond the changes made by the Press Council review a few months ago.
It is no longer about only protection of children from poor and unethical media practice, but it also contains positive responsibilities to ensure children’s voices are heard and that they are portrayed in a diversity of roles.
Considering that children account for 39% of our population, this is a crucial and wonderful but long overdue inclusion.
Although much coverage will and should focus on other aspects, we must emphasise the importance of the shift in the codes.
Less than two years ago, the only mention of children in the press code was in the definition of child pornography.
We now have a dedicated section on children and the preamble refers to the best interests of the child principle contained in our Constitution.
More than that, the protection of children is carried into other sections in the code, referencing reporting on divorce as well as maintenance issues.
Why is this so significant?
The shift is significant because it re-emphasises the importance of respecting children and children’s rights, and especially minimising harm to children.
To be clear, research we have done in the past 10 years on the South African media’s coverage of children shows that it is gradually improving.
But far too often our media, in an effort to report on the horrors children experience in South Africa, add to children’s trauma through secondary victimisation, with consequences that go well beyond the life of the publication.
The media is powerful, and being shown in a newspaper can have devastating consequences.
A child who is abused and who is then shown in the news experiences the consequences of the abuse in a different form.
The child may be further traumatised, teased, humiliated, victimised or even ostracised from her or his community.
It makes sense if you imagine the most intimate (and potentially traumatic) thing in your life suddenly being told to everyone you know or don’t know, without you having any control over it.
In ordinary circumstances, a person who is wronged by the media can take action through the Press Council or the courts.
In the majority of cases we have monitored, the children who are abused again in the media are from the most marginalised
They are often poor and have access to few resources – these are vulnerable children who require the greatest care.
The courts and the Press Council processes are seldom seen as options for them. In the past some media have been defensive over potential harm caused, and were not empathetic to the children.
The press code put forward by the Press Freedom Commission is a huge step forward in ensuring greater protection for children in the media and at the same time encouraging media to hear children’s voices. It is also a crucial recognition of the value and importance of children in our society.
Nelson Mandela is reported to have said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
With our new press code we all have great reason to feel good about the future of our media.
» Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa