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Documenting abuses while protecting children at risk

UNICEF updates guidelines for reporting on children’s issues

© UNICEF/NYHQ2004-1159/LeMoyne
Margaret (not her real name) was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Uganda at the age of 13. This image demonstrates the power of photography to document violations against vulnerable children while protecting them from further harm.

By Ellen Tolmie and Rebecca Fordham

NEW YORK, USA, 6 August 2010 – UNICEF has updated its guidelines for reporting on children’s issues as part of the continuing global effort to ensure every child’s right to protection and dignity.

Grounded in the principle that children’s rights must be respected in all circumstances, the guidelines focus particularly on those who may be at risk of harm – including physical danger, psychological coercion or social stigmatisation – if they are identified in media reports.

Identity protection in risk situations

The need for greater identity protection for some children became increasingly evident in international reporting during the 1990s.

There were two main reasons for this: first, a rise in the number of conflicts that targeted civilians, including children; and second, a heightened awareness of the full range of children’s rights and their violation.

Some of the most egregious forms of violation include forcing children into armed conflict or sexually exploiting them. Children who suffer these abuses may risk being traumatised or stigmatised if their identities are publicly disclosed. The same holds true for children who are HIV-positive, or those who are charged or convicted of crimes.

UNICEF supports rigorous media coverage of child rights violations because reporting is crucial to raise awareness of their existence and advocate for putting a stop to them. But advocating against human rights abuses can also put individual children at risk of additional physical or psychological harm.

When to protect identities

“We have witnessed many instances where children have been further endangered or stigmatised after their stories are published,” notes UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, Susan Bissell. “Protecting against this requires that reporting on children in high-risk situations also respects their individual rights to privacy, to participate in decisions affecting them, and to protection.”

To ensure respect for these rights, UNICEF’s internal policies and external guidelines call for protecting the identities of children whenever publication of their stories may put them at risk.

UNICEF policy also requires that requests for identity protection from any child (or the child’s guardian) must be respected in all circumstances – whether or not they involve sexual exploitation, HIV and AIDS, criminal justice or child combatants.

Protecting victims of sexual exploitation

Protecting the visual identities of child victims of sexual abuse has long been broadly supported; indeed, such protection is mandated by many countries’ national laws. This is partly because pornography (a visual depiction of sexual exploitation) is often an aspect of the abuse. Publishing the identities of sex abuse victims further exposes an intimate suffering that can deepen the sense of powerlessness and humiliation caused by the original violation.

In many communities around the world, identifying victims further stigmatises them and increases their risk of future abuses.

Nevertheless, stopping sexual exploitation requires documentation of its pervasiveness. And cultural taboos against publicizing or even acknowledging the existence of sexual abuse can increase risks and give victims little recourse when it happens.

Non-sensational coverage of child soldiers

A parallel dynamic is at work in documenting the issue of child soldiers.

Media reports exposing the use of child combatants make a vital contribution to greater awareness of this gross exploitation and the global campaign to stop it. But to ensure that individual children are shielded against possible reprisals, stigma or worse, UNICEF protects the identities of all former or current child soldiers judged to be at risk.

This policy also protects against the sensational use of images that show armed child soldiers acting or posing as aggressors – including all those holding weapons.

Of course, armed child soldiers are threatening and dangerous (and are often drugged or otherwise de-sensitised to the damage they can do). As children, however, they are also, by definition, forced combatants. While recognising the importance of reporting on them, UNICEF emphasises their status as children and coerced victims, a status that is much harder to emphasise if they are represented in sensationalised ways.

Imagery that protects children

To address the challenge of protecting the visual identities of children at risk, UNICEF works with professional photographers and videographers who have demonstrated a key point: Imagery that fully protects the subject’s identity can be as powerful and convincing as any other approach to documenting abuses.

Creating such imagery often means allowing children to participate in the act of protection – by, for example, turning away from the camera or covering their faces. The result, far from being banal or evasive, dramatically represents the situation of at-risk children, underscoring the need for protection while also preserving their dignity.

UNICEF imagery that provides this level of protection demonstrates the power of photography and videography to document harsh realities while safeguarding child rights.

'Best interests of the child’

The question of whether or how to protect a subject’s identity is an editorial judgment that must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In all cases, though, it should be based on the primacy of the ‘best interests of the child.’ This standard is the foundation of many national laws governing child protection and an over-arching principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To evaluate the need for identity protection of at-risk children, it helps to ask: If this were your child, would you permit her or his identity to be revealed in the context of a specific abuse, or with the potential for stigma?

Besides serving as a useful rule of thumb, this question promotes a view of every child – personally known or not, far away or close to home – as worthy of the same rights as all other children.

When identities are revealed

The principle of a child’s best interests also recognises instances where risks are weighed and found to be in favour of publishing identities. This is the case with child advocates who choose to take a public stance on a potentially high-risk subject. Some former child soldiers, for example, testify openly to the brutality of their past experiences.

In such cases, children have a right to express themselves and participate in issues that directly affect them. Still, efforts must be made – especially when children remain in the community where the abuse occurred – to ensure that they understand the implications of their decision to speak out.

In the end, UNICEF’s position comes down to this: Protection against harm must be the over-riding premise for all interactions with children, including reporting.

About the authors: Ellen Tolmie is UNICEF’s Senior Photography Editor. Rebecca Fordham is UNICEF’s Media Specialist for Child Protection.





UNICEF Photography - Protecting children

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