Complainant: Andre Appolis
Lodged by: Andre Appolis
Article: Rubber bullet did this!
Date: 12 February 2015
Respondent: Johan Vos, assistant editor of the Daily Sun
Appolis complains that a photograph published on the front page of the Daily Sun on 2 February 2015 (the story was headlined, Rubber bullet did this!) was insensitive and irresponsible.
|The text, picture
The story is about a four-year-old boy who got caught in cross-fire between the police and stone-throwing protesters. The child was reportedly playing outside the gate of his home in Diepsloot with a friend from next-door. “The rock-hard rubber bullet slammed into his forehead just above his left eye. A few centimetres and the boy would have been dead,” the article says.
A gaping bullet wound just above the victim’s eye is clearly visible, with blood streaming down his face, neck and onto his shirt.
|Appolis complains that the “onslaught of violent images in print media on front pages” was inconsiderate, in full view of children, insensitive to sensitive readers, irresponsible, and that it exposed society to extreme forms of violence.
He says the Daily Sun did not take into account that young children are also members of the public, who had no choice but to see the explicit image. This may make them less sympathetic to the suffering of others. “The newspaper could have handled it differently whilst still achieving the same effect,” he concludes.
|Vos refers to Section 8.1 of the Press Code which states that the press should “exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children”, and argues that the newspaper adhered to this clause.
He adds: “We have published this picture to reflect the condition of our society. And sad but true, it is in a brutal state − in such a brutal state that children are suffering the consequences of a violent society. We argue that the publishing of the picture in question is in the public interest.”
Vos says the boy was the victim of a brutal police attack – the end-result of which can be clearly seen in the picture.
“The mere fact that the boy could have been dead is a reason for publishing the article and the picture. This must serve as a warning to those who must serve and protect the community to be extremely careful in the way they act. The firing of that rubber bullet could have ended the life of an innocent child… This article’s intertextuality between the Marikana massacre cannot be ignored as police brutality was at the heart of what happened on 16 August 2012. It could also serve as a warning to mothers/fathers to look carefully after their children so that they won’t be caught in the cross-fire.”
He admits that the picture is violent in nature, but argues it is in the public interest to see what happened. “It is Daily Sun’s responsibility to our readers to report on such violence, and not to ignore it.”
Vos says the newspaper spoke to the boy’s mother, who was angry and threatened to sue the police. He quotes her as saying: “I want to know what happened. They must find out why my boy was shot. I want them to pay for their actions.”
He concludes: “Daily Sun also wants to know what happened [−] why was her boy shot? The published picture is asking the exact question. We feel strongly about our responsibility to inform our readers about the violence in society (although most of them are experiencing violence first hand), even more so if children are hurt, and even safeguard them against it.”
Daily Sun’s Editor-in-Chief Reggy Moalusi remarks, “We live in a violent society, and children are often victims of this violence. That [fact]we cannot ignore or choose not to report about. The point here was to show the brutality of the actions of those cops.”
Appolis replies that:
- Vos’s reference to the Marikana case is like chalk and cheese;
- young children frequent outlets where newspapers are sold and should not be forced to see such graphic images with gross details of a wound, bright and large; and
- he has not argued that the matter was not in the public interest – it was the manner in which the newspaper presented the event that came into question.
He also refers me to my finding in the case of Arno Lamoer against the Daily Voice (see my remarks below).
Section 8 of the Press Code applies in this case. The relevant parts read:
“The Bill of Rights (Section 28.2) in the South African Constitution states, ‘A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.’ The press, applying the spirit of this section, shall therefore:
· (8.1) exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children. If there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child, he or she shall not be…photographed or identified without the consent of a legal guardian or of a similarly responsible adult and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child), and a public interest is evident; [and]
· (8.3) not identify children who have been victims of abuse [or]exploitation…without the consent of their legal guardians (or a similarly responsible adult) and the child (taking into consideration the evolving capacity of the child), a public interest is evident and it is in the best interests of the child.”
Section 9 is also applicable: “Due care and responsibility shall be exercised by the press with regard to the presentation of brutality, violence and suffering.”
Firstly, some general remarks:
I am convinced that the picture was in the public interest (this issue is not in dispute), and that a thousand words could not have adequately described what had happened to this unfortunate child. This fact weighs heavily in favour of the newspaper.
In addition, the argument that the publication of the picture could have desensitized the public in general and children in particular to violence is not strong enough. Who is to determine the outcomes of the publication of such a picture? A counter-argument may also be made, namely that a picture such as this would, by shocking people, in fact sensitize them to the violent society we live in.
The case of Lamoer vs. the Daily Voice is not applicable, as this finding was about a deceased person, which is not the case in the matter at hand.
I am now turning to Section 8.1 of the Code.
It is clear that:
- because a child’s best interests are of paramount importance, the press should exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children;
- this “exceptional care and consideration” becomes especially relevant if there is any chance that coverage might cause harm of any kind to a child; and
- if the latter applies, then a parent or a legal guardian (or the child, if applicable) should consent to the publication of a picture of the child.
Therefore, the relevant question here is: Was there any chance that the publication of the picture might have caused the boy harm of any kind?
If “yes”, the newspaper would have had to obtain the consent of a responsible person (clearly, in this case the child was too young to give his permission); if the newspaper decided “no” and therefore did not seek permission, it might have been up to me to decide whether or not the picture could have harmed the child.
I therefore asked Daily Sun if it had obtained the mother’s permission, to which it has replied in the affirmative. “She was furious about the incident as indicated in her quotes in the article and wanted the brutality to be exposed.”
Given the decision that the publication of the picture was in the public interest, and that the mother indeed wanted the newspaper to publish it (together with other arguments as reasoned above), the complaint is dismissed.
Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.