January 2011: The month of multiple Children’s Rights Violations by SA Print Media

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Every Monday morning Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) staff meets to discuss and analyse examples of the best and worst media coverage of children. Each week we select one example of the worst reporting for a MAD, and one example of the best reporting for a GLAD. However, last week we had more than 10 MADS – that is, examples of reporting that clearly violated a number of children’s rights outlined in the South African Constitution and provided for in the SANEF recommended guidelines for reporting on children. It has become nearly impossible to pick one example out of so many, which is why MMA felt compelled to write MADS about multiple articles.

This week was no different. Again, more than a dozen articles were nominated for a MAD from the following newspapers (in alphabetical order): The Citizen, Daily Sun, Mail & Guardian, The New Age, Sowetan and The Star. Such was the severity of the children’s rights abuses in each of these articles that MMA felt compelled to combine them all in another MEGA MAD. We hope this raises awareness and encourages better reporting behaviour.

The Citizen

“Day-care assault charge laid” (The Citizen, 18/01/2011, p. 4) – an eight-month-old baby who was abused while in a day-care centre, was named and pictured with her parents, and therefore directly identified by the newspaper. The article also described in detail her abuse and type of injuries sustained. Identifying an abused child violates their rights and isn’t in the best interest of the child. The description of her abuse is gratuitous. It is the journalist’s role to protect the child and furthermore, inform the parents of their obligation to protect their child’s identity. Ironically, the article didn’t identify the abuser or the day-care centre where the abuse took place.

A day later, in “Day mother blamed over alleged child abuse” (The Citizen, 19/01/2011, p. 6 the same mistakes were repeated. The abused child is named and her injuries described in detail. However MMA would like to give credit to the journalist for referring to the Children’s Act and explaining how the law was violated in this case.

Daily Sun

“Army Dad goes mad!” (Daily Sun, 17/01/2011, p. 5) – interviewed and indirectly identified a ten year old boy who witnessed his father kill his grandmother and aunt before killing himself. The article named the child’s father, mother, grandmother and aunt, and therefore indirectly identified him. According to section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act “no person shall publish in any manner whatever information which reveals or may reveal the identity… of a witness at criminal proceedings who is under the age of 18 years.” Aside from being a child witness to a crime, this child was forced to relive his traumatic experience just three days after it happened. This child’s welfare was sacrificed for the sake of tabloid sensationalist journalism.

“Spinning Death” (Daily Sun, 17/01/2011, p. 4 – identified and pictured a four year old child who witnessed an accident involving a spinning car in which his uncle was killed. The report confirmed that a case of culpable homicide had been opened. The boy is a child witness to a crime, and the law requires that his identity be protected. The article also reported that the uncle was attempting to protect the child who “likes to sneak out and watch the cars spinning.” Telling this story in this manner risks increasing the emotional trauma that this child may experience, either now or as he grows older. This child should be protected and supported, and not made feel guilty or responsible for the death of his uncle.

“Hot Klap” (Daily Sun, 19/01/2011, p. 5) named and photographed a seven year old boy who is experiencing temporary blindness after he was allegedly hit by a girl in school. Irrespective of the age of the accused, this child was an alleged victim of an assault. It is also possible that this child was a victim of bullying and highlighting the issue in this way may not have been in a child’s best interests.

“Back in Mum’s Arms” (Daily Sun, 19/01/2011, p. 3) was a follow on story from an article that earned a MAD the week before: “She stole R1,800 and ran!” (Daily Sun, 14/01/2011, p.15). The article was about a missing 11 year old girl but it focused on an allegation that she had stolen money from her mother and run away.

In the follow up article, which earns a second MAD, Daily Sun patted itself on the back for helping to re-unite the child with her mother. The child reportedly told her mother that she took the money in order to go and visit her grandmother, but that she got lost. She was then found by a woman, and she stayed with her until she was brought to a police station.

There were indications in the article that an awareness of the child carrying money may have created a potentially dangerous situation for her and her family. One person tried to extort money from the family, claiming they could return the child in exchange for R2,000. The child also alleges she was essentially exploited because of the money. Of the family who found her she said that “they only cared about the money I had and pretended to be helping me.” Even if this alleged exploitation did not happen as a result of the Daily Sun report, it highlights the potentially dangerous situation created by highlighting that a vulnerable child is in possession of a large sum of money.

Mail & Guardian

“A land that’s in need of a cure” (Mail & Guardian, 21/01/2011, p. 37) brought to our attention a central problem in Africa – malnutrition caused by inadequate access to health care services for pregnant mothers – told through a story of a mother and her malnourished one-year-old child in Southern Sudan, both of whom were named. While in contrast to other examples of poor reporting mentioned in this report this particular article was in fact well written and powerful, it is questionable whether identifying the mother and the child in the story was in their best interest. In addition, the article was accompanied by a stock photograph depicting a stereotypical image of a severely malnourished child, whom in this case isn’t even the child the story was about. The child in the photograph was a named and identified two-year-old girl from a different part of the country. While MMA understands the challenges involved in reporting from remote and international locations, possible alternatives were to publish a photograph in which the child isn’t identified and doesn’t reinforce stereotypes, or a photograph of the actual child and mother featured in the story, while keeping their identities concealed.

The New Age

In “Siamese twins’ mom needs help” (The New Age, 11/01/2011, p. 5) The New Age journalist appeared to have misunderstood what it means to protect the identity of a child. The article clearly stated that the teenage mother of conjoined twins “cannot be named because of her age.” However the article quoted and named her sister and guardian, thereby indirectly identifying the mother. It also named the child’s twins and published a photograph of them, despite the fact that their identities should also have been protected.

If a newspaper thinks it is appropriate to protect the identity of a child, simply omitting a name is not necessarily sufficient, especially where there is other information provided that will inevitably identify the person. In its guidelines Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) elaborates on this point saying: “to identify a child…means to provide the child’s name, or information about where the child lives, what school the child attends or any other indirect means where a child may be recognized by people who know the child.”

“Falling wall crushed three-year-old” (The New Age, 11/01/2011, p. 1) – on its front page The New Age chose to make two children who had witnessed the death of their cousin the face of the tragedy. The two young children were playing with their cousin when he was killed. The image of the two sad children was clearly intended to tug at the heart strings. However these children have just experienced an upsetting and emotional ordeal. This photograph was invasive, insensitive and at worst a cynical ploy to sell newspapers. By publishing it The New Age fails in its ethical obligation to minimise harm.

“Aids orphans’ boost by back-to-school project” (The New Age, 20/01/2011, p.27) – pictured and therefore identified children that were described as “Aids orphans.” The initiative in the article, where disadvantaged children are given free school uniforms, is of course a positive one. However by showing the faces of the children, who were defined in the article exclusively by virtue of the fact that they lost parents to HIV and Aids, it potentially undermined the positive nature of the story, and risked making the children more vulnerable and stigmatised in their communities. It is also worth noting that this was a local municipality’s “back-to school” project. Positive publicity for local government ahead of upcoming local elections should not come at the expense of children’s welfare.

MMA had a similar concern about “Bakkie kills girl two days into school” (The New Age, 17/01/2011, p. 25) in which a child witness to a crime was named and photographed alongside MEC Magome Masike. It also appeared that the photograph was supplied to the newspaper by the North Western Provincial Government. Here again the child’s identity should have been protected for ethical and legal reasons.

Sowetan

Front page articles “White school bars black child” (Sowetan, 14/01/2011, p. 1 and 4) and “Barred boy gets new school” (Sowetan, 18/01/2011, p. 1 and 2) named and pictured a 7-year-old boy who was told he couldn’t attend an Afrikaans-speaking school because he didn’t speak the language. The headline “White school bars black child” and “Black boy (7) chased away” (Sowetan, 14/01/2011, p. 4) made clear that the newspaper interpreted this story to be one of race. MMA strongly believes that a 7-year-old boy should not be made a poster boy for a race or language debate.

The Star

“Twin saw sister leap to death in front of train” (The Star, 20/01/201, p. 2) interviewed and identified (by name and in a photograph) the 17-year old twin sister of the victim who was also a witness to her suicide. In addition it identified their mother, where they live and their school. Identifying a minor in this case was not in the child’s best interest, and asking her to relive the experience of witnessing her sister’s suicide could potentially causes the child secondary trauma.

The article also missed the opportunity to expand on the counselling services available to students who may be struggling at school as well as for their parents who may need guidance on how to deal with this. This information was included only at the end of the article, whereas the story could have benefitted from choosing to make this educational and informative component the focus of the story.

Children are afforded special protection under international law and or constitution. There is a ministry dedicated to overseeing their wellbeing and numerous pieces of legislation that focus on children. In most of the instances above, the clear violation of children’s rights has little justification and seems largely gratuitous and self interested.

Currently our press code does NOT cover children except under the definition of child pornography.

By Sandra Banjac and Laura Fletcher

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