Concern over govt vs Sunday Times

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has expressed “deep concern” at reports of police plans to arrest Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and journalist Jocelyn Maker over the theft of Health Minister Manto-Tshabalala-Msimang’s medical records.

“It is an extraordinary irony that, 13 years into our democracy, the same governing party who fought for freedom from oppression and for freedom of expression is now seen to be increasingly clamping down on those precise freedoms,” DA leader Helen Zille said in a statement on Sunday.

Describing the move as a step in the erosion of “constitutional rights”, Zille said it is evident the state’s security machinery is being used to pursue those who fall foul of President Thabo Mbeki and his allies.

The Sunday Times reported that Makhanya and Maker, its deputy managing editor, will be arrested this week over the theft of Tshabalala-Msimang’s medical records. This follows a series of recent articles in the newspaper detailing the health minister’s alcohol consumption while in hospital.

Independent Democrats (ID) leader Patricia de Lille said her party is concerned at what the arrests mean for press freedom, but does not believe Makhanya and Maker should be treated differently before the law. “And therefore the law must take its course,” she said.

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) expressed outrage at the possible arrest of Makhanya.
“I can’t recall anybody ever being charged of this before, and it indicates the anger government is showing to the Sunday Times,” Sanef head of media committee Raymond Louw told SAFM radio.

Sunday Times reports claimed that, in two stays at the Cape Town Medi-Clinic for a shoulder operation in 2005, Tshabalala-Msimang sent staff to buy alcohol, threw drunken tantrums, abused nurses and washed down medication with wine and whisky.

It also said she had used her position to secure a new liver while hiding her alcoholism from the public and had been convicted of stealing a watch from a patient while superintendent of a Botswana hospital in 1976.

A Health Ministry statement said the allegations were “false, speculative and bizarre”. Mbeki has shrugged off opposition calls to fire the minister.

The minister responded by taking the Sunday Times to court. The newspaper admitted having copies but denied stealing them. It was ordered to return her medical records, finding that they had been illegally obtained.

On Sunday, Western Cape police could not confirm reports that Makhanya and Maker were to be arrested. Superintendent Billy Jones declined to comment. He said a statement would be issued in the course of the day.

Government spokesperson Themba Maseko declined to comment, but ANC MP Roy Padayachee told SAFM that Makhanya should face the consequences if he broke the law.

“This kind of development is most unfortunate, but ... it is alleged that he transgressed the law, and therefore he is being brought to book,” Padayachee told the radio station. “We want the media to stick close to the truth and we welcome a diversity of views. But the media has taken on a role of being an opposition to the ANC and the government.”—Sapa, Reuters

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