Is it legal to reveal the identity of child victims of sexual abuse?
March 23, 2016 5:29 AM   Subscribe

I was horrified to read an article today on Buzzfeed about a 'heroic' Australian victim who raised several thousand dollars for a home for child victims of sexual abuse in Kenya. So far, so good. Except that the article included photographs of many of the young girls themselves. Those pictures are now on the internet forever.

I was under the impression that revealing the identities of child abuse victims (unless they are dead or the abuse is historical) is illegal in the UK, but I don't know where to look to cite this. I am now intending to write an article about this incident, and would greatly appreciate an overview of the law wherever you are. Have Buzzfeed broken the law?

I would particularly appreciate links to sites which lay out the legal position. My google-fu is turning up lots of hysterical tabloid articles but not much legal substance on this issue.

Thank you!
posted by matthew.alexander to Law & Government (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't point to the law. But it has firm history in profound racism. It also happens on murder/death/suicide situations when the subject of the photograph is not white and not in Australia. I've seen people fundraising for children in developing countries doing this.

You should check out the hideous exploitation through a group called Rafiki Mwema. They appear as dodgey as hell to me.
posted by taff at 5:36 AM on March 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

The CPS website (English law, government website) says: "The victim in a case of rape or one of the sexual offences listed in the 1992 Act is entitled to 'anonymity' in the press. Once an allegation of one of the relevant offences has been made, nothing can be published which is likely to lead members of the public to identify the victim. The offences listed in the 1992 Act include most offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, part 1. "

As taff says, this is racism pure and simple. Media Diversified ran a very good article on it recently, 'The Theft of Innocence: Voluntourism and Child Sexual Abuse'. The article makes the point that this is part and parcel of general attitudes to children: "“Voluntourism” and the foreigners doing charity work in “Africa” reinforces a particular kind of hierarchy: the freedom with which westerners will take photos with little brown babies and upload them on social media and Tinder (an article for another day). Yet would they do the same with a random group of children they see at a playground in London or New York? Highly unlikely."
posted by Vortisaur at 5:47 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

In the United States (where Buzzfeed is based) it is in general perfectly legal to publish the name of child sexual assault victims and rape victims; most publications do NOT do this (because of the obvious concerns) absent a compelling reason to do so (or permission from the victim). It is very difficult in the US to get a court order ordering that child victims NOT be named in the media (my understanding is that it's somewhat easier to get such an order in Canada, and considerably easier in the UK).

There's a debate going on in journalism circles right now about whether the practice of not naming victims actually protects abusers while providing little support to victims. (That's a short article but it gives at least the gist.)

The controlling law in the United States is Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975), holding that publishing the name of rape victims (properly acquired from court records) was protected by the First Amendment and of significant public interest, and there was no countervailing privacy right that would prevent it; and Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989), holding that it is not illegal for a newspaper to truthfully publish public facts in court records (in this case, the rape victim's name). In both cases, state laws prohibiting the publication of the names of rape victims were held unconstitutional.

I think your starting point should be to contact BuzzFeed's editorial staff, and possibly the article's author, and say, "I'm really uncomfortable seeing the names and pictures of rape victims published out of concerns for revictimizing them. I know most mainline outlets don't, so I'm sure that there was some discussion that went into why it was okay to do so in this case. Can you tell me a little about what ethical discussion went into making this decision?"

If you intend to write an article about this, you really need to be interviewing experts on media law and on victim privacy law in your various target countries (as well as media ethicists and victim's advocates); this is a hugely complicated area of law and you'll be doing it a disservice with a "quick hit" article based on the answers of internet commenters like myself. You're also raising interesting questions about what happens when publications cross national boundaries without conforming to all those nations' laws.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:52 AM on March 23, 2016 [29 favorites]

Wouldn't writing an article about how Buzzfeed did this just draw more attention to the victims?
posted by AugustWest at 7:14 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

A couple of questions: is the photo definitely a photo of the survivors, or is it a more generic shot of children? Also, was it authored by a Buzzfeed writer, or was it one of those pieces authored by a user?

Especially if it was authored by a user, I'd go with a stern email to Buzzfeed, which might be enough to get it pulled.

I'd encourage you to do that before you write an article. If you write something and link to the piece, you are contributing to the exploitation and exposure of these girls.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:18 AM on March 23, 2016

I dug around a little more. Seems like the problem comes from the "hero" who is crowdfunding for this. She's been sharing these photos on social media herself and used them on a funding platform, and then some blogs and media picked it up. I'd contact the fundraising platform and the "hero," who may not realize the poor ethics of her approach.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:31 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

But surely the organization benefiting from this provided the photos and knows of the use of the photos. The website has lots of pictures of the girls but no names nor identifying details, according to their captions. The Australian blogger used the same photos.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:48 AM on March 23, 2016

Yes, the orphanage itself has dozens of smiling photos of these girls. on their website. They obviously have no problem with showing their faces and I'm sure it helps with their fundraising efforts.

If permission was granted I'm not sure what you can do.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:54 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

So, these children are *entitled* to privacy, but that doesn't mean they are *required* to take advantage of that right, does it? Like, if a 16-year-old American or whatever wanted to come forward and identify herself as a victim of sex abuse, *that* certainly wouldn't be illegal or particularly ethically dubious in the US.

I suspect that the organization makes a decision to publicize the photos because it helps with fundraising and awareness; it's problematic that this is the decision they have to make, and it's gross to realize that there is very little chance they would show these kinds of photos if these kids were in the US or UK or whatever. One might prefer to do business with an organization that protects its beneficiaries' privacy more. But I don't think Buzzfeed is the problem, at least.
posted by mskyle at 8:53 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

unicef has decent guidelines on ethical reporting on and interviewing children, especially children who are vulnerable. None of this is binding, outside of specific state our national laws which often don't cover this issue, but papers usually don't feature child victims identifying. Pre internet, there was a sense that foreign children were too far away to know their privacy was compromised (plus racism and classism - there are Russian orphan blog stories just as invasive with white kids, chosen because they're white and vulnerable), but surprise, surprise, poor kids in developing nations have the internet too and can Google their names now.

Buzzfeed could do better though, even if the originating places are jerks. It takes little effort to blur or crop those girls' faces, and pseudonyms are perfectly fine with a note.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:23 PM on March 23, 2016

Can I suggest you start googling Sarah Rosberg, Anne-Marie Tipper, The Annexe Project and Play Kenya. Could just be a group of white business women with very good intentions who are inadvertently hideously racist exploiters. Or they could have some other kind of financial arrangement. Hard to tell.

Oh...I notice they're doing a fundraising safari. In Tanzania. Not Kenya where the orphanage is. Wow. I guess all Africa looks the same to them.

Ok. It's gross, no matter how you look at it.
posted by taff at 4:27 AM on March 24, 2016

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