Promoting Children's Rights in the Media – Workshop Report

Cape Town, South Africa, September 12-14, 2003

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Southern Africa Journalists Association (SAJA) ran a two day workshop (Sept 12-14,2003 ) in Cape Town for the promotion of children's rights in the media. The meeting was organized in the framework of the Media for Democracy programme, supported by the European Commission. It was attended by editors, chief executive officers, academics, journalists, childrens' rights advocates, researchers and media trainers. Young (children) radio journalists (famous for their kidiocracy programme) from Bush Radio ( Cape Town) made a vibrant presentation on the second day of the workshop, explaining what treatment young people expect from media coverage. Participants came from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya and Botswana.

Discussions were led by Mike Jempson, Director of PressWise (UK), assisted by his colleague Arjum Wajid. The International Federation of Journalists was represented by the Project Officer Bertrand Ginet and the MFDSA Programme Coordinator Tuwani Gumani.

The discussions focused on the social responsibility of journalists and the specific attention required by the coverage of issues affecting children. The participants underlined that, while children are not different species, they are not adults and therefore need special help and protection when dealing with them. However, the discussions tended to illustrate the contrary, i.e. that in the majority of cases, children are largely ignored by the media, which tends to cover them through adult idiosyncrancies.

Contesting current media practices

The participants cited the following acts by the media as objectionable:

· not letting them speak for themselves without adult interference;

· not being treated as equals, human beings as everyone else;

· not asking them what they think about issues covered in the media or events around them;

· not giving them the chance to speak freely to adults as well as other children;

· not seeing them as individuals with their own thoughts, enthusiasms and concerns;

· not valuing their experience - they may be young but they have already learnt a lot about life;

· not letting them be themselves as opposed to what other people want them to be

· not taking their opinions seriously;

· being patronized and spoken down to;

· letting adults put words in children's mouths or interrupting them

· letting adults speak for children when children know more about the subject in question. (The list goes on).

Case studies presented at the workshop revealed that, while children make up more than two thirds of the world population, they still take up less than five percent of media coverage space.

A biased media coverage ?

What is evident in the results of the survey is that out of all media stories published, less than five percent was assigned to children's issues of child prostitution, plight of orphans, sexual abuse of children, denied access to education, denied access to health, exploited by adults, sexual abuse by family member (father), sexual abuse by teachers and street children. Some of these themes such as sexual abuse by father, child labour, being denied access to health and education were completely ignored by some media. It is worse with some media in many of the sub-Saharan region who do not accept that children are interested in many things just like adults and not just pop, fashion, cartoons and other entertainment. Some media are steeped into the "adult thing" of putting children in narrow set of boxes ranging from angels, innocents, troublemakers, rowdy teenagers and delinquents.

It also transpired during the discussions that many journalists are not familiar with conventions on children’s' rights promulgated by the Africa Union, the United Nations or other agencies and organizations. One of the researchers said that as far as their investigations had gone with several media houses, it was found that many media houses and training institutions did not have guidelines on how to report human rights violations on children. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has drawn up some guidelines based on an extensive survey of codes of conduct and standards currently in force across the world.

Raising awareness

IFJ and SAJA involvement in these issues intend to raise awareness on a specific set of professional responsibilities. It aims at steering discussions that will finally lead to developing newsroom policies and journalistic skills to cover children’s issues in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). It will be about empowering journalists to gain skills in covering truth over tragedy without undue drama or negative pity. Children say they do not want to be shown as mere victims because that demeans them. For sometime criticism has been levelled at the media that when they cover human disasters, they usually show children as victims of war, famine, poverty and exploitation. They do not bring out their views on the matter.

Critics point out that even children living in the most appalling circumstances have thoughts and feelings, a sense of pride and dignity and a distinct perspective on the world. It is intended through this process drawing on intra and interpersonal reflections and discussions that a better code of conduct and standard based on our own experiences, visions will inform the development of a home-grown reference manual relevant to our situations. This will be used in newsroom and training institutions. The skills learned and practiced by journalists will create the desired respect for and understanding of children's perspective.

Calls for a follow-up

Deliberations from the Cape Town workshop call for an extensive involvement of journalists’ unions and associations as well as NGOs representatives and academics to promote children's rights in the media. This initiative builds on calls for personal and organisational positions on media responsibilities to children by responding to the following:

· What responsibility do you think the media should give to children ?

· What responsibility do think the media have to portray children faithfully ?

· What responsibility do you think the media have to respect children's privacy ?

· Do you think the media should have a responsibility to consider the consequences of their work with regard coverage of children’s issues ?

Recommended bibliography

The case studies includes the following references:

· Listening to Children by P. Alderson

· A voice for children: speaking out as their ombudsman by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, UK

· We are on the radio (text and tape) Published by the Child to Child Trust, from Teaching Aids at Low Cost, UK,

· Children's participation: from tokenism to citizenship, Published by Unicef;

· Communicating with children by Save the Children;

· Invisible children by Save the children.

Editor: Crosbey Mwanza

See also

Child rights and the media, recommended web sites

Putting Children in the Right. IFJ Guidelines for Journalists and Media Professionals

With the support of the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights