John Thomas vs Sowetan

Complainant: John Thomas

Lodged by: John Thomas

Article: The picture was headlined Armed school raid yields Bibles. The story was published on page 6, headlined It’s all clear at ‘problem’ school – Harmless items found in unannounced raid.

Date: 31 October 2013

Respondent: Sowetan

Complaint

Thomas complains about a picture of his son (16) on the front page of Sowetan in which the latter was about to be searched by the police during a raid at his school. The picture was headlined Armed school raid yields Bibles. The story was published on page 6, headlined It’s all clear at ‘problem’ school – Harmless items found in unannounced raid.

He complains that the picture clearly showed his son’s face, which erroneously connected him with drugs and/or the illegal carrying of weapons.

Analysis

The story was about an unannounced and armed police raid on a high school in Boksburg. The police were reportedly looking for drugs and weapons, but only found “innocent” items.

Thomas adds to his complaint that his son was a minor, and points out that his face should have been covered.

Sowetan responds that both the story and the headlines clearly stated that the police raid yielded nothing but Bibles (and other innocent items) – there was no suggestion that pupils were found in possession of drugs. The editor also argues that no harm was done to any of the pupils and that the matter was in the public interest. “Had drugs been found and the pupils became a suspect, the matter would have been different. It would have been illegal and unethical to publish the pictures of pupils.”

Section 8 and 8.1 of the Press Code are relevant here. These articles read: “Section 28.2 of the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution states: ‘A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.’ The press shall therefore exercise exceptional care and consideration when reporting about children under the age of 18. 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 unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents, or a public interest is evident.”

My first question is if there was “any chance” that coverage might have caused this child any harm.

It is an established principle both in ethics and in law that a story should be seen in context. The issue, therefore, is whether or not the story presented enough context to have prevented the child from having been caused any harm. I do think so – the headlines already declared the pupils’ innocence, and the story made this clear from the very start. If their innocence was proclaimed towards the very end of the story on page 6, one may have argued that many readers would not have perused the whole story – with the conclusion that there was indeed a chance that the child may have been caused some harm. But that is not what has happened in this case.

My first conclusion is that it is not reasonable to accept that Sowetan’s coverage was likely to have caused the child any harm, as the context made it abundantly clear that he was innocent. The newspaper cannot be blamed if people on social networks took this matter out of its context.

Secondly, the Code says that a minor’s custodian should give a publication permission to publish his or her picture unless a public interest is evident. I submit that, in light of my first conclusion, the public interest argument in this case overrides that of the consent of a custodian. Weapons and drugs in schools, with the violence that often accompanies these matters, were indeed in the public domain and “a major problem in the country”, as Sowetan correctly argues. Besides, the fact that the police acted – in this case unannounced – was itself in the public interest.

These two conclusions can only lead to one finding. (If there was any reasonable doubt that the child may have been guilty, this finding would have been different.)

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

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 Chair of Appeals, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds for the application. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

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