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Children's rights versus press freedom: who wins?

© UNICEF/SWZK00468/Pirozzi
Nick Garsevanishvill, a member of the Young People's Media Network, interviews a girl in Tblisi, Georgia.

Lynn Geldof, Regional Communication Adviser, at the Child Rights vs. Press Freedom seminar, hosted by Mediawise, Bath, United Kingdom

11 November 2005: I hope that by the end of the day, all of us here today will agree that the title of the conference presents a false dichotomy; that there is not – nor can there be - a conflict between child rights and press freedom.

UNICEF would hold that a society – and the print and broadcast media within it – that is unwilling or unable to protect its children, its most vulnerable group -- is a self-harming society, condemned to collective ASBO-land and eventual collapse.

No democracy, however robust, can permit that to happen. It is, therefore, in the collective interest to deliver on children’s rights, including those pertaining to the press.

In societies based on respect for human rights and the rule of law, the print and broadcast media has the double function of holding those responsible for transgression or neglect to account and to be, themselves, accountable to society for the trust placed in them to inform truthfully.

Yet whole sections of the UK print and broadcast media have colluded in the dumbing and numbing of British society by a diet of reality TV and tabloid fodder at the behest of market forces. People, children, are devouring the equivalent of fast-food and becoming flabby of mind and spirit. Small wonder then that the democratic deficit deepens by the day.

A missed opportunity

Markets and consumers now demand only more fodder: the Fourth Estate is being effectively eroded from within.

This was made possible by what was, in my view, the biggest missed opportunity in education way back in the 50s and 60s and which continues in the present day: the failure to teach modern media criticism (including print).

It is not enough to teach the mechanics of modern media, just as it isn’t enough just to teach only how to read.  Children have a right to an education that helps them understand and interpret the world around them. This means they need to be able to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from lies.

So the main mechanisms for truthful, unbiased civic discourse are being undermined and, in that process, children’s rights.

The representation of children in the mass media today is a problem. Nor do we hear enough from children and young people themselves. This situation is harming them and it is doing society no favours.
© UNICEF/SWZK00615/Pirozzi
Two young journalists edit a programme at the "Young Voices" Radio Studio in Chisinau, Moldova.

Spelling out child rights

Now, let me quickly say a few words about the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its implications for press and broadcast media.

The CRC (1989)is the most signed up to convention in history with only the US (and Somalia) holding back. (Interestingly, the CRC followed on the women’s movement, it was made possible by the voice of women).

Articles 8,12, 13, 16,17 and 19 relate to children’s rights to expression and protection

Now, rights and citizenship. The issue is children are not mini-people with mini-rights. They are citizens with additional rights and protections commensurate with their age and maturity.

As a recent (6 Oct) article by Ruth Lister in the Guardian pointed out that children were not units of human capital – as in ‘our future’ - but citizens with rights in the here and now.  But, she lamented, ‘In a “social investment state”, the child has taken on an iconic status as the prime unit of investment in human capital.’

Lives at stake

Where I work, in the CEE/CIS region, a reporter must constantly look to the best interests of the child because in many situations, freedom – as in press freedom -- is not just another word for nothing left to lose: a child’s life could be lost.

As Reuters’ Jeremy Bown recently said on a BBC World documentary, "It’s wrong to be impartial about the death of children."

The need to protect a child’s identity is set out in Article 16: ‘Children have the right to protection from interference with their privacy, family, home and…’ and in Article 19: ‘…protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse’.

Here are a few specific circumstances:

-         The children of war rape whose identity, if revealed, could mean death;
-         Children who have been trafficked; sexually abused; otherwise exploited; physically abused; child victims of     violence in general;
-         Child drug users/pushers;
-         The child soldier;
-         Children who are HIV positive – they face horrendous stigma and discrimination;
-         The child in a detention centre or facility.

Again the questions for media practitioners are: Is it in the child’s best interests? Will it cause harm or retribution?

How UNICEF responds

In CEE/CIS our work in relation to print and broadcast media and children’s rights must take into account the region’s history. So, we have a multi-pronged approach.

We started out with the reference booklet Children’s Rights and the Media produced with your hosts here:  Mediawise. It is now into its second edition and demand is steady -- over 500 downloads from our website in six months...and our site is only six months old.

And we manage the self-explanatory Young People’s Media Network. We also work with Mediawise on training in the CRC which involves practical exercises.

We, ourselves, also do trainings on specific issues such as immunization and HIV and AIDS…get those stories right and the media save lives!

We are currently talking to the BBC World Service Trust who do longer-term institutional training – inter alia – in the region involving curriculum development in which the principles of ethical journalism and human rights are embedded, along with experiential practical work. We want to include a child rights module in that curriculum.

Allied to this, we want to develop a child rights media monitoring mechanism. It would be modelled along the lines of ANDI, the very successful Brazilian agency that has moved the child rights agenda so high as to have brought about policy and legislative change i.e. child sexual exploitation. (e.g. newspaper coverage, small ads etc, police units, arrests).

It’s a long process, of course, but one that will bring about positive change for children and their rights and help deliver on the Millennium Development Goals.

So, ladies and gentlemen, the rot stops here!

For more information:

Angela Hawke, Communication Officer, UNICEF CEE/CIS. Tel: (+4122) 909 5433, email:






The Media and Children's Rights (PDF)

The MAGIC website
(Media Activities and Good Ideas
by, with and for Children)

Mediawise and children

Kids page


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