Media needs guidance on reporting of child abuse

Media needs guidance on reporting of child abuse

Where do we draw the line between raising awareness of important issues and ensuring we protect the rights and dignity of children who have been through traumatic experiences? We often forget that vulnerable children are real people.

What may be a headline for a few days will be with that child for the rest of his or her life. In raising awareness sometimes we cause further harm by traumatising the survivors of already horrific experiences. When this happens we have to ask ourselves _ for whose benefit is this happening?

Early this month, a 12-year-old ethnic Karen girl escaped after five years of torture at the hands of a Thai couple in Kamphaeng Phet province. Her injuries reveal years of horrific abuse. Her torso and arms are so severely scarred, scalded again and again by boiling water. Her skin resembles rough leather and she can no longer raise her arms.

After her escape, the girl was taken to a government shelter. A few days later, she was stripped to her underpants and paraded before reporters, standing with her head bowed in shame before a room full of men and women taking pictures, filming, asking questions, spinning her around in order to get the best angle as if she were an object.

Photographs and videos of the girl appeared online and in local newspapers, showing her humiliated as she is forced to relive years of pain and suffering. Again, we have to ask ourselves for whose benefit this is being done?

As adults and as human beings, we _ journalists as well as civil servants and law enforcers _ have an obligation to protect children's rights. In the case of this Karen girl, even though her face was obscured and her name was withheld (all positive steps), we failed to protect her dignity and have subjected her to the shame of appearing near naked in a room full of strangers. We've put her under a spotlight, stripped her of her clothes, her humanity and her dignity, and objectified her in the name of raising awareness.

Yet this is precisely the kind of story that needs to be told and shared widely. When events like this happen, people should know about them in the hope that future incidents can be avoided. An informed society is one that is more able to protect the rights of all children. Members of the media therefore have an enormous responsibility to find the right balance between raising awareness and protecting the rights of the children whose stories they cover. Police, doctors, child protection officials are supposed to protect abused children from all kinds of harm and humiliation, not contribute to it. This is no easy task and it's something that needs urgent attention.

Journalists are the last line of defence for children who have been scarred by their ordeals. In this instance the journalists could have chosen not to take photos, interrogate or otherwise participate in an event that would deepen the harm this girl had already suffered. A female official from the provincial authorities could have photographed the girl's hands, arms or legs in a private room and then shared those pictures with the media to avoid further harm to the child.

While the imperative to tell a compelling story often comes with the need for compelling photographs and details, we all have to be willing and able to speak out when journalists, law enforcers and civil servants overstep the mark and add further harm to vulnerable children who have been through enough as it is. We cannot simply stand back and allow the media to get a story by trampling on the dignity of children _ it dehumanises the girls and boys to do this.

Cases of child abuse have to be reported, but there should be guidelines in place. Journalists, editors and photographers must be trained in child-safe reporting methods. We've seen promising steps in this regard. Organisations like Unicef and Plan have programmes on child-friendly journalism that equip members of the media with the skills they need to be able to report on sensitive issues without harming children.

But we need more of this and we need it more often.

Furthermore, this needs to be a conversation we all take part in, considering how unethical reporting on vulnerable children (and others) will affect them.

The media has one of the most crucial roles to play in influencing child protection policy. For public concern to figure into any kind of political agenda, there is a great need for a high level of awareness _ and journalists are key in this _ but the well-being of children must come before all else, otherwise we've failed before we've begun to tackle the issues at hand.

The well-worn turn of phrase "do no harm" is usually associated with the aid sector, but perhaps it's time to bring the media into the fray and build partnerships that should ultimately be having a positive impact.

Maja Cubarrubia is Thailand country director for the global child rights organisation Plan International, which works with children and communities in 69 countries, 14 of which are in Asia.

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