Appeal Decision: Al Jama-Ah vs City Press

Decision: Application for leave to appeal

Applicant: City Press

Respondent: Al Jama-Ah

Matter No: 1076/04/2015

DECISION ON APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAL

[1]     Under the headline “Isis and the normal suburban girl” City Press (“applicant”) published an article in its edition of 12 April 2015 about a 15 year old girl who was removed from a plane bound for Turkey, allegedly to join the Isis militants.  The Al Jama-Ah (“respondent”) lodged a complaint with the office of the Ombudsman about the manner in which the coverage was done.

[2]     The gist of the respondent’s complaint was that the applicant contravened clause 8 of the Press Code in that, in reporting on the story involving a 15 year old girl, they identified her. The following details were given: that the girl lived in a cream-coloured double story house; in the Kenwyn suburb; the house was in a picket fence line street; a gate in the front flanked by surveillance cameras; the mother described as a medical doctor; the location of her practice was mentioned (Grassy Park); the father was also described as a businessman and someone completing his pilot’s licence training; the mother’s birthday date disclosed; the girl was mentioned as one of three children.  The mother was described as a popular doctor, visited regularly by many members of the Muslim community for medical treatment.  The description of the girl went further: “The family moved to Cape Town from Durban about six years ago, and often return to Durban for visits”.

[3]     In its defence, applicant argued that it did take care not to identify the child.  The Ombudsman disagreed; he found that Clause 8.1 of the Press Code had been contravened, and upheld the complaint. He ordered the applicant to apologise for giving too much information about the girl.  It is against this Ruling that the applicant seeks leave to appeal.

[4]     Clause 8 of the Code reads:

“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 interviewed, photographed or identified…”(own emphasis).

          Applying this to the present case, it means greatest possible care be taken not to identify the child.  In its application for leave to appeal, applicant persists with the argument that it did not identify the child: “City Press did not name the child, did not name the parents, did not name the street where they lived, did not name the school she attended, did not name the grade she is in …”.  (own emphasis). I am afraid the applicant misses the point: one does not identify a person or something only by naming; mentioning a name is only one of the many ways in which a person or something can be identified; mentioning a name is only one of the many tools to help identify a person.  It should be noted that the prohibition is not just against naming; but against identifying.  Applicant’s point of departure is therefore wrong.  In fact it could lead to absurdity: an infant or say 3 year or 5 year old who has not been given a name yet can never be identified as she has no name to mention!  The correct approach is that, whether names have been mentioned or not, a child can still be found to have been identified for the purpose of Clause 8.1.  This would depend on the intensity and particularity of the description of the child, with reference to other aids of identification other than her name. The description may be so thorough that people are able to realize who the person is; after all, isn’t this how we often trace and apprehend criminals?  Each case will depend on its own facts.  Therefore, the question in the present case is whether, even though no names were mentioned, the Ombudsman was right in holding that the descriptions given were sufficient to enable people to identify the girl.

[5]     I agree with the Ombudsman’s Ruling, for the reasons I give above; namely, that one need not mention names.  Yes, a person from say Pretoria or Harare might not have identified the girl, but anybody living in or around the areas mentioned would have easily identified the child. The description was intensive and particular; it was very pointed and thorough; see above.  It included detailed personal descriptions of the parents; so too the description of the street and the house: double storey, cream etc.

[6]     For the reasons given above, as also those by the Ombudsman, I hold that the applicant has no reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel; the application is therefore dismissed.

Dated this 6th day of May 2015

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel