/ 23 October 2007

Great debate about Manto records

Under no circumstances should a patient’s medical records be disclosed unless he or she gives personal consent, a seminar hosted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was told on Tuesday.

A panel was discussing the implications of articles published by the Sunday Times about Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

Chairperson of the South African Medical Association Dr Kgosi Letlape said medical records should not be disclosed without consent.

”Everyone has a right to be protected by the law against such conduct,” he said in Parktown, Johannesburg, at the SAHRC’s Freedom of Expression vs Privacy seminar.

Letlape said doctors had a duty to keep patients’ medical records confidential even after death. He said disclosing somebody’s health status was an invasion of privacy.

The heated debate came to an end with most of the panel discussion members echoing Letlape’s view.

South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) news chief Snuki Zikalala said the SABC would never have published such a story because they only published stories that would develop the nation.

”We are guided by the Constitution not to incite violence or hatred in our reporting. Publishing such a story is disrespectful.”

Zikalala said all individuals had a right to live, not to be destroyed.

He said there was a serious problem with South African media because when journalists attacked the government they became popular.

”If a journalist attacks the president, he or she become a hero and wins an award for it in this country.”

He said editors had become sensationalists and liars, quoting an article in the Sunday Times where the editor, Mondli Makhanya, said he was being followed.

”Makhanya was lying. There’s no journalist that’s followed [home] in South Africa,” said Zikalala.

‘False story’

Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe said it was unfair to discuss the issue because the Sunday Times had not had a chance to defend itself against the allegations.

”I can’t comment on issues that are either on my desk or will be on my desk soon,” he said.

Author Ronald Suresh Roberts disagreed with Thloloe, saying the Sunday Times had had a chance to defend itself in the many articles it had published.

He said: ”There was a false story two weeks ago in the Sunday Times, which said that Makhanya was going to be arrested.

”The paper has published many articles on the issue, so I believe they had a fair chance to defend themselves,” he said.

Roberts said journalists were not above law and this should be emphasised in the way the country dealt with the media’s misconduct.

”There’s too much liberation for the South African media; if the Sunday Times had published that story using stolen information in another country, Makhanya would have been arrested.”

Few of the debating members disagreed that the newspaper had invaded the minister’s privacy.

Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute said if one behaved badly as a public figure and there was confidential information that the public had an overwhelming interest in, she thought it should be disclosed.

”There was an abuse of power here so one can’t have a reasonable expectation to privacy.”

Duncan said Tshabalala-Msimang did not deserve to be treated with dignity, quoting the Sunday Times story saying she had mistreated staff at the clinic.

”Did she treat others with respect? Why should she be treated with respect? She is the one who broke the privacy vs public interest rule, not the newspaper”.

Media law expert Justine White said people should be asking themselves whether it was an unwarranted intrusion into Tshabalala-Msimang’s private affairs.

”If somebody were to publish a story calling me a thief and a drunk, I would’ve consulted a lawyer, the same for defamation. The fact that this has not happened speaks volumes.”

Makhanya was expected to be on the panel, but according to discussion facilitator Sello Hatang he had had a death in his family and could not attend. — Sapa