Tackling hate speech and fake news

Media ethics of a report on a child marriage

Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe

The image is part of a report published in Silumina Sinhala language Sunday newspaper on 8th November 2020 (http://www.silumina.lk/). According to the report, a mother of Uhana area in Ampara district has given her 14-year-old daughter to a 22-year-old man to live together. The girl was studying in grade nine of a school in the area by the time she was compelled to a child marriage illegally.

The report leads to some critical discussions. The first conversation is related to journalism ethics because of the photo of a woman published with the report. The photo is completely unrelated to the report. The photo cannot be of the 35-year-old mother who is related to this story. She is a casual labourer in remote Ampara district in the Eastern Province. But the eye-covered woman in the photo can be a model, perhaps Indian. The photo clearly misleads the reader. What is the purpose of the newspaper to use such a photo with this report?

The report carries more serious issues as well than that. The 14 years old girl has lived with the 22 years old youth as husband and wife, according to the report. Section 363 of the penal code of Sri Lanka points out ‘legal age of girl giving consent for sexual intercourse’ is 16 years. Sexual intercourse, even with the consent of a person less than16 years, is considered as ‘statutory rape’. The man, in this case, has committed a serious criminal offence and the girl’s mother has assisted the crime.

Another issue related to this report is contraception. Although the mother of the girl has committed a serious offence by conspiring to make her underage daughter marry, she has done at least one correct thing. It is the birth control of this girl, and it is legal.

The report mentions a small surgery performed at a government hospital and it can be Jadell. Sri Lanka Family Planning Association website explains Jadelle is “effective, reversible contraceptive method which is inserted just below the skin (subdermal). It is a long term reversible method which gives protection for up to five years. Can be removed at any time before the completion of the 5 years when a pregnancy is desired.” (http://www.fpasrilanka.org/si/content/jddel)

The newspaper alludes it is a method of permanent sterilization which is factually wrong. Birth control of this underage girl is essential because she is not grown adequately to give birth to a baby. Sri Lanka Ministry of Health statistics points to the fact thata country average 5% of the pregnancies in Sri Lanka are underage and in some areas, it is as high as 8%.

We have to focus on the time the child marriage has taken place. It was the time of COVID-19, and the lengthy closure of schools and the impact of the pandemic on the rural economy might catalyze such incidents. The parents of the girl have separated, and the mother appears as a single parent casual labourer leading a female-headed household.

If we focus again to the report, it is pathetic that the state-owned Silumina Sinhala newspaper reported this incident in this manner. A newspaper can make aware of the public about incidents like this focusing the reader’s attention to the social, economic and legal aspects. Sometimes, the newspapers rouse the emotions of the readers too by sensationalizing news aiming to cater to sexual and other fantasies. But, should we expect such reporting from a state-owned newspaper?

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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