Children at Face Value

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The Sowetan Sunday World (SSW from now on) yesterday (15/07/01) carried a story about a seven-year-old boy child who had been disfigured in a fire. They published a close-up picture of the child and identified him by name. The headline was “Give me a Gun.” A note below the picture and the headline stated, “We publish this picture of Oscar Hadebe knowing it might open us to accusations of insensitivity. We want to illustrate the plight of this beautiful child and appeal for help. The R96 000 already donated is not enough for Oscar’s plastic surgery. Sowetan Sunday World pledge R1000 to Oscar’s trust fund. We urge you to join us. – Editor”

No reason was given as to why the picture was used, either on the front page or in the story on page 6, which is accompanied by another equally dramatic photograph of the child. The central thrust of the story appears to be the extreme suffering the boy child experiences as a result of his appearance. This torment forms the basis for the headline where the pain of the boy is so extreme he wishes he was able to shoot those who laugh at him. The story states, “He had on a hat, which covered most of his face. He hid his face to shield the horrific scars.” They also explain in the story how the child prefers to play indoors so that he doesn’t have to be outside and seen by other children and goes on to note how the boy prefers to play on his own. In spite of this SSW elected to use two clear images of the boy exposing him to significantly more people than those in his neighbourhood.

The efforts of the SSW to raise funds for the boy’s operation are commendable but the SSW are guilty of more than just insensitivity. Section 28(2) of the Constitution states, “a child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.” The working document of the Media Code of the Office of the Status of Children in the President’s Office, the World Health Organisation’s Children’s Reporting Guidelines and the International Federation of Journalists Guidelines all emphasise the extreme care and sensitivity and respect for privacy that needs to be shown when dealing with children in the media.

In the present case one may argue that by showing the boy, it may have the desired impact of encouraging people to donate money to the boy’s trust fund and that hence, the story is in his best interests. The validity of such an argument aside, the following aspects need to be considered. The dramatic nature of the story highlighted by its placement on the front page emphasised the drama and not the plight of the boy. There was no discussion of the issue of how many other children are burned in fires. There was no mention of the child’s rights. No regard for the boy’s privacy was shown and no explanation was given for the use of the images. That the best interests of the child were not paramount is further supported by another story on the opposite page.

On page 7, a story is titled, “Hospital of Hell” wherein three children are named and a photograph of one of them is shown. The story is about how each of the children were severely injured during routine medical procedures at the hospital. No clear reasons for naming the children are given. It is even more difficult in this instance to argue that naming and identifying them was in their best interests. Indeed the horror of what happened to them could have been conveyed without naming them.

In spite of the stated intentions of the SSW, these factors suggest scant regard for the interests of the children involved and the violation of their rights to privacy seem difficult to justify. The MMP encourages the media to cover issue such as these but to exercise due regard for their rights when doing so.

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