Spurred by the recent reporting of the underage “marriage” of an 11-year old girl to a 41-year old man in Kelantan, Malaysia, this is a deliberation on principles for ethical reporting on children, or rather the lack of it, and the child’s rights and welfare.
I was on my way to work today when I stole some sleepy glances at the Harian Metro that the passenger in front of me was reading and saw the picture of a young girl on the front page. I gasped. She is the 11-year old girl, Siti Saman Mat Ail, who was allegedly married to a 40-year old man in Kelantan. Harian Metro reported on how she was abducted by her “husband” and was later found.
The underage marriage was already a shocker, but how the press is treating the news without due consideration to the best interest of the child is even scarier.
What if Siti Saman is my own Safra? What would I feel, being exposed to the public in such way? Was any preliminary consent and discussion made with the mother with regard to exposing her daughter’s identity in public? By the way, how would Siti Saman feel at the moment? It is unashamedly accepted that sensational news involving sex scandals, erotic descriptions, and mystical elements universally sell – but at the expense of the safety, security and welfare of a child?
This is not the first time that I am appalled at how the media carelessly carry information pertaining to the identity and private information of children caught in situations that jeopardize their safety, dignity and livelihood. If Siti Saman is still missing, then publishing her picture in the press and media is essential for the public to be able to report to the authorities or provide information on her whereabouts. But since she has already been found, she needs her personal space and privacy in order to recover physically and mentally after what had happened.
I came across similar carelessness a year ago, when three teenagers were arrested for participating in a peaceful anti-ISA assembly in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. Photos of them in handcuffs along with their full names and ages were featured in the mainstream newspapers. Perhaps the political nature of the alleged “crime” they committed rendered it necessary for the press to display their photos as a deterrent to the rest of the young population, not to be involved in peaceful assemblies.
But still, is it right for the media to report news on children in such fashion? Or are there any legal or moral guidelines that could make our local journalism more respectful of children’s interest and well-being?
Section 15 of the Child Act 2001 makes it clear on how identity of young offenders charged with criminal offence must be protected during the pre-trial, trial and post-trial. The same applies to children, who are victims of trafficking activities, whereby Section 58(2) of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007 clearly restricts the publication of photos or any related identity that may lead to the identification of the trafficked victims.
How then, do we categorize the two examples I quoted above? Their situation may differ from children in conflict of law or children who are trafficked, but the impact of such reporting to their dignity and recovery remains just as devastating.
In 1995, Malaysia acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Article 16 of the Convention, of which the State accepts without reservation, reiterates a child’s right to privacy in matters related to its life and family. Despite some significant changes taking place in the legal protection of children prior to the accession, it remains a question on how we actually deal with children’s privacy and confidentiality in the public space and media reporting.
A tort case to clarify children’s right to privacy in New Zealand, can perhaps offer us some light into this issue. In Hosking and Hosking v. Runting & Pacific Magazines NZ Ltd., the court had to determine on whether people in New Zealand could sue when their right to privacy have been infringed. In its decision, the court offered rules on protecting the privacy of a child. As New Zealand is also a state party to the UNCRC, the court referred to the following Articles in the Convention:
Article 3: Best interests of the child;
Article 8: Preservation of identity; and
Article 16: Protection of privacy.
Court held that children’s privacy is not absolute. In order for a claimant to bring a successful case on invasion of privacy, there are two criteria that need to be fulfilled:
first, the information was obtained where there was a reasonable expectation of privacy (for instance, in a family home); and
secondly, the publicising of that information would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.
The Children Commissioner in the case echoed the need to protect the privacy of children in light of international human rights standards and also as part of the legal responsibilities of the broadcaster, however, such rights must be balanced with the media’s freedom of expression and speech especially where public interest is concerned.
Another persuasive reference could be made to the International Federation of Journalism’s Guideline on Children Reporting that is actually part of their overall Ethical Journalism Initiative launched in 2008. The full guideline is reproduced here:
1. Strive for standards of excellence in terms of accuracy and sensitivity when
reporting on issues involving children;
2. Avoid programming and publication of images which intrude upon the media
space of children with information which is damaging to them;
3. Avoid the use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote
journalistic material involving children;
4. Consider carefully the consequences of publication of any material
concerning children and shall minimise harm to children;
5. Guard against visually or otherwise identifying children unless it is
demonstrably in the public interest;
6. Give children, where possible, the right of access to media to express their
own opinions without inducement of any kind;
7. Ensure independent verification of information provided by children and
take special care to ensure that verification takes place without putting
child informants at risk;
8. Avoid the use of sexualised images of children;
use fair, open and straight forward methods for obtaining pictures and,
where possible, obtain them with the knowledge and consent of children or
a responsible adult, guardian or carer;
9. Verify the credentials of any organisation purporting to speak for or to
represent the interests of children.
10. Not make payment to children for material involving the welfare of children
or to parents or guardians of children unless it is demonstrably in the interest
of the child.
Coming back to legal provisions in Malaysia that is relevant to the issue beforehand, I have no choice but to cringe and refer to Section 4 (1) of the Printing Press and Publication Act 1984. In the Act, where publication is concerned, the definition of “unlawful purpose” of publication includes materials that are obscene or against public decency. Such vague interpretations have not been of any help in defining a more child-friendly and gender-sensitive press and publication policy in the country, especially since the implementation of the Act is focused towards clamping down press and publication that promotes alternative views.
Although we have a Code of Ethics for Journalists, that amongst others, calls upon journalist to practice responsible journalism and shall, in the disposal of his or her duty, promote racial harmony and national unity, there is a need to review existing laws and guidelines on press and media in the country in order to ensure that specific concerns related to the protection of information, privacy and identity of the vulnerable members of the society, in this case, children, are given proper and firm attention. It is also our duty to adhere to international commitment we made on defending and protecting the interest of children and to translate such commitment into real action.
It is time we take reporting news related to children seriously and with due care to the children involved as opposed to sensationalising it: serving public interest without compromising the well-being of a child.
LoyarBurok Editorial Note: Marina Mahathir’s Gender equality still falls short may be of interest.