A delicate balancing act

Wednesday, October 10, 2012    

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INCREASINGLY, stories about child rape have again focused attention on the conflict between press freedom and victims' rights, especially the rights of children. In recent weeks I have received complaints that some of these stories have exposed the identity of the young victims. If this did in fact occur it would be in violation of the UN Convention on Children's Rights which affirms that children are to be protected against public exposure that would hurt them in any way.

The two stories that come to mind are about the 11-year-old child who was placed in the custody of her father and the other more widely publicised one relates to the eight-year-old who was raped along with four other females from the same household. While there can be no question that in a general sense the media have a responsibility to report the news to the public as it happens, this should never interfere with the rights of victims to protection from unnecessary trauma and further violation that disclosure of their identity would likely cause. This is especially so in the case of children. All too often the stories like these reveal the identity of the victim(s), even when a photograph is not part of the story. But even if photographs are not included, if the identity of the parent or other relative of the child is published, especially in their community setting, then it is a sure way of revealing the child's identity.

Media entities are sometimes responsible for less than sensitive treatment of highly sensitive issues. Photos and video footage of aggrieved and traumatised parents, or their children, are frequent occurrences. Do the details provided help our understanding of the larger issues? Probably not, yet it sometimes seem that the aim is to project as much of that angst as possible; the messier, the better.

Media practitioners sometimes believe that it is within the victim's discretion to be identified, and in the case of children interviewed, it is okay when they get the permission of the parent. But were the potentially negative impacts of the story on these children explained prior to the interview?

And even so, the UN Convention places the responsibility on the media to protect the children and those related to them, even from themselves. Hence, although the parent may relish the thought of getting their moment in the media spotlight, this ought not to be allowed to happen.

I don't believe that the media practitioners responsible for any of the stories about child abuse and/or rape, that I have read in newspapers or seen on television, intended any emotional trauma to the children. Naturally, I do not include the "anything goes" social media in my assessment.

Often such stories have heightened public awareness of the problem and hopefully the need for such support by institutions involved in the fight against child abuse such as the Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

However, while the overall intention of the stories may have been positive in raising issues of abuse, in some cases they may have further violated the rights of the children concerned. Besides, could the media not get the same information from interviews with agents in the related child protection arena and/or from other court officers?

One of the depressing things that emerged in following up on the story about the eight-year-old rape victim was that, although apparently recovering physically, the mental scars are deep, and she has expressed a strong reluctance to return to her community where she feels that she will endure further embarrassment by being recognised as the victim in the story.

Recently, the high court in India tightened the norms for media reporting in cases involving children. The court order mandated that the media must balance its responsibility to protect children from unsuitable content with the right to freedom of expression and the right to know. In this regard the media in that country are required to "ensure that a child's identity is not revealed in any manner, including disclosure of personal information, photograph, school, or locality and information of the family including their residential or official address".

Would this be a helpful ruling in Jamaica? I don't pretend to have the answers, but I do know that exposing child victims of abuse to further trauma can never be in the best interest of the child nor their families.

Vigilante journalism

Then there were reports a week earlier about two young boys who died under seemingly mysterious circumstances. Following on this, and we can't be sure that media reports had anything at all to do with this outcome, one man was set upon by a machete-wielding mob and his family is now homeless and in fear for their lives after their house and possessions were set ablaze by incensed residents because they were believed to be sheltering the man responsible for the death of the boys.

The problem is that media stories about the deaths of the two boys, without credible supportive evidence, may have contributed to the speculation that they were molested prior to being killed, leading to a charge of "vigilante journalism" against some of our media houses by one letter writer.

There is nothing so far that sheds light on the mystery surrounding the boys' deaths and the media have been less than helpful in this regard, except appearing to be sympathetic with the suspicions of the parents and others in the community that subscribe to the theory that the boys were molested prior to be killed. Such reports certainly doesn't seem like responsible journalism to me.

Confidential sources versus the facts

One columnist last week claimed that he learned from an apparently confidential source that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) may not be completely happy with everything our own Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO) is doing in terms of the local drug-testing programme. Also, that "we" - no doubt to be interpreted as JADCO - admitted to doing minimal drug tests in the months leading up to the National Trials preceding the Olympics.

That report was the first time I can recall learning that JADCO admitted to any such gap in their drug-testing programme in recent times. It would be interesting to know whether the source of this columnist's information actually required confidentiality, and if so why. But even if that was their wish, could not this columnist follow up by securing some credible supportive information? To do so would certainly have been breaking news which the public not only has a right to know, but the columnist has a responsibility to disclose beyond the information published in his column that may be damaging to individuals and/or country. The sensational appeal achieved is definitely not worth the cost.

ICC World 20/20 title

I join with others in congratulating the West Indies cricket team on their impressive victory in this contest. However, I still don't understand how some of our reporters could have rated the West Indies as pre-tournament favourites to win the trophy in stories published.






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