Media’s duty of protecting victims of child abuse


by Randima Attygalle


Imagine yourself as a parent, sibling or a loved one of an abused child for a moment. What is it to see the photo of your young child, the prey of a perpetrator of sexual abuse, splashed in a newspaper? What will reading sordid details of a heinous crime perpetrated on a child grabbing the headlines of the day do to you? Does the disclosure of a child victim’s name, his/her school and the photograph serve the public interest? The secondary victimization of the child (in case of a survivor) and his/her family members resulting from such media circuses is such that it could even lead to post-traumatic depression ending up in suicide and the collapse of the entire family unit.


Responsible reporting

The quantum of responsibility placed on a journalist reporting a case of child abuse is infinite. The Code of Professional Practice (Code of Ethics) of The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka adopted by the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL) in Clause 06 (General Reporting and Writing sub-clause 6.1) articulates that, ‘in dealing with social issues of a particularly shocking or emotionally painful nature – such as atrocity, violence, drug abuse, brutality, sadism, sexual salacity and obscenity – the press should take special care to present facts, opinions, photographs and graphics with due sensitivity and discretion, subject to its duty to publish in the public interest.’ The Code also defines what is meant by public interest. Moreover, the Code clearly states that unless legally permitted or in the public interest, victims of sex crimes cannot be named. However, recent print media reports of heinous child sex crimes are way below the required standards; to the extent of the victims becoming household names.

"A case of child abuse is a sad story and it doesn’t have to hit headlines. What purpose does the photograph of the victim serve? Why should the public know the name of the child’s school? A journalist should ask these questions of himself before publishing all sordid details of sexual abuse," notes the Chief Executive Officer of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka (PCCSL), Sukumar Rockwood, who laments that ‘decent journalism’ has eroded in the country.

"The Code of Ethics should be the Bible for journalists," he says urging all journalists to adhere to the ethics it promotes. "Clause 6 of the Code is very clear about victims of sexual crime yet it is not heeded by many journalists."

"The recent tragedy of schoolgirl Vidya is a classic case. Ideally we should not have known her name or the details of her family. Yet no detail of the rape and murder of this girl was spared by media and the damage social media did to her family is unpardonable."


Rights of the

aggrieved parties

The PCCSL enables an aggrieved party to make a complaint against any published news report. The relevant editor is then contacted by the Commission for conciliation and the reader’s ‘Right of Reply’ is exercised by publishing a correction, clarification or other rectification. However, if there is no agreement between the concerned parties, the PCCSL’s Dispute Resolution Council (comprising six non journalists including an Attorney-at-Law and five journalists), is called to mediate.

"This body can summon the relevant editor and/or the complainant if necessary. If no settlement is possible at this juncture, an arbitration mechanism comes into play under the provisions of the Arbitration Act No. 11 of 1995 where an application is made to the High Court to enforce the ruling," explained Rockwood. He added that so far in the 12-year history of the PCCSL no application has been made to the High Court to enforce a ruling. Majority of complaints have been resolved through conciliation, which shows the growing participation by Editors to the PCCSL process to resolve complaints.


Legislative provisions

The legal standing pertaining to reporting of sexual offences perpetrated on children is clear both in the Penal Code (Amendment of 1995) and the recently enacted Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act. Yet, regardless of the law and media ethics, irresponsible reporting of such offences continues each day. The Penal Code Amendment of 1995 (section 365C) makes the printing or publication of the name or any matter which may make known the identity of the victim an offence punishable with imprisonment (which may extend to two years) or with fine or with both unless the written consent of the victim or next of kin is obtained or on the direction of the officer in charge of the relevant police station acting in good faith for the purposes of the investigation. The question here is whether the identity and photographs of such victims obtained through police splashed in newspapers and news reports (sometimes exaggerated) do serve purposes of investigations or if they are released in good faith in the public interest.

Section 25 (3) (e) of Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, 2015 recognises the power of courts and other commissions empowered under the Act to direct ‘media institutions, media personnel and other specified persons from publishing, broadcasting, telecasting or otherwise disseminating information pertaining to the identity of the victim of crime or the witness concerned.’


Advocacy role of media

The media and journalists have played an important role in breaking the ‘wall of secrecy’ which surrounds child sexual abuse but better reporting can add momentum to and also pressure on law enforcement authorities to bring perpetrators to justice, maintains Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, former Vice Chair, UN Monitoring Committee on the Rights of the Child. "The reporting of an incident of child abuse is only a beginning. What happens afterwards is what is critical. It needs to be followed up to completion until justice prevails for all child victims." The media can play an advocacy role in this regard to ensure that once reported, prompt action is taken by responsible state authorities, without any erosion of the child victim’s dignity, physical and psychological integrity, she adds.

In relation to media exposure of child abuse, most often, isolated incidents are highlighted. The reporting of child abuse, particularly sexual abuse must be undertaken in a sensitive and child protective manner. "If not, it can lead to further victimization of the child victim and his/her family. I am sure no journalist would want this. Thus disclosure of any personal details must be avoided. This could occur due to lack of knowledge, and when media needs to authenticate the facts. But it can and will lead to further victimization of child victims which cannot be justified."


Best interest of the child

One of the most important principles to observe in reporting any form of child abuse, violence or neglect, is to uphold the best interest of the child. The emphasis should be on identifying and exposing gaps and deficiencies in the systems responsible for providing care and protection to children, including the family. When child abuse occurs, there are many designated state authorities and institutions responsible to take action. Their rapid response is imperative, whether the perpetrator is a family member, neighbour, teacher, persons in authority, clergy or so- called ‘friends of the family’.

"Rarely are child abusers strangers. Perpetrators spot victims, ingratiate themselves with the child and then ensure that the victim keeps what is happening secret. The abuser could even be a parent, which means confiding with another trusted family member or a designated authority. There is now a new threat of ‘grooming’ child victims through the internet, and parents need to be warned, children informed and protected," observes the expert who urges media to play a critical role in enabling a better national response to child abuse.

"Media reporting should focus on failures in systems of governance related to weak law enforcement, delays in the judiciary, weaknesses in access to recovery services and gaps in the capacity of child protection services to reach out to all children in need. Strengthening protection for children in homes, schools and the community is essential. Media can also play a key role in providing information on prevention, early detection and access to services,

including law enforcement, healthcare and counseling. Media by exposing child abuse plays an important role in eliminating the secrecy and stigma which contribute to perpetuating such crimes."

Commending media for the key role played in highlighting the many facets of child abuse, Dr. Wijemanne urges upholding ethical and child rights considerations of never exposing the child’s identity, including name, family details, location, and image in doing so. "Media should strengthen and expand their role in both preventing child abuse and advocating prompt and effective action to punish all perpetrators, while protecting the identity of child victims and their families, respecting their rights to dignity and privacy."


Breaking autonomy

Publishing the victim’s sibling’s name in a news report or the photograph of the victim which a rival newspaper has failed to do is no act of glory. It is not a matter for a responsible journalist to take pride in. Child victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffer consequences- both physical and psychological, to last a lifetime. "Publishing such stories break the basic ethical principle of autonomy - that the news, photos and identity of self belongs to the particular individual and no other. Since the child is below 18 years of age his or her parents/guardians should give written informed consent for publishing such a story. The child also should provide assent voluntarily for such publications.

Childhood abuse is extremely traumatic to many children and one of the most important aspects to survive such tragedy is the emotional support of the family, school and the community. By giving publicity to such stories, the emotional support from the community and school may halt and child will be devoid of any support from these sources. Especially the school administrators may be faced with increasing pressures from other parents and society to even expel these children from schools," observes Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa, Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya and Senior Registrar in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children, Colombo.


Collapse of family unit

Lack of this essential emotional support could lead to maladjustment of the child psychologically and may cause later depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress symptoms, points out the psychiatrist who goes on to note that media publicity on abuse could re-traumatize a child. "The child would feel helpless, hopeless and would lose trust in adults as well as the world as a whole. This may lead to later relationship problems when they are adults."

In collectivistic societies of Asia, families mostly function as a single unit. When one family member is affected physically or psychologically, the entire family unit may cease to function, says Dr. Chandradasa. "Media publicity of abuse may cause significant trauma to other family members as well. Other family members can also develop depressive, anxiety and post-traumatic symptoms related to the abuse of their children." Such unwanted media publicity could also hinder ‘coping mechanisms’ of the child’s parents, he notes. "Media without detailed evidence may accuse the parents of lack of protection and safety which could cause severe psychological distress in them which could even lead to suicide." 


Journalistic limitations

Publishing sensitive news items on children, especially abuse, without the guidance of child and adolescent psychiatrists is unacceptable opines the psychiatrist who warns journalists that the news item in issue not only affects the victimized child but it could also traumatize the children of the entire country. Drawing journalists’ attention to psychological principles and ethics that should be followed when reporting such incidents, Dr. Chandradasa urges them to understand the limitations of the validity of the information they have of an incident including opinions on matters such as safety of children, irresponsibility of parents and community reaction. "Irresponsible discussion of these issues could cause psychological disturbances in the family and the community," warns the psychiatrist who encourages journalists to seek guidance from the Sri Lanka College of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists and Child Psychiatry units at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital Colombo, Teaching Hospital Karapitiya and SirimavoBandaranaike Memorial Children’s Hospital, Peradeniya.



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