/ 21 May 2008

Manto may be in contempt of court, says Public Protector

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang may be guilty of contempt of court for criticising a ruling that allowed the Sunday Times to comment on her health records, the Public Protector said on Wednesday.

The Public Protector made this finding while investigating a complaint of misappropriation of funds against the Health Ministry.

The Department of Health paid more than R380 000 for five newspaper adverts last September that reacted to the court ruling related to Sunday Times reports on her health records.

Although the Public Protector found that the complaint of misappropriation of public funds did not have any substance, it notified the National Prosecuting Authority that the contents of the newspaper adverts constituted a possible contempt of court offence.

”Organs of state … have a constitutional obligation to protect the court to ensure its effectiveness and to uphold its dignity. Any conduct by an official of the state that is offensive and likely to damage the administration of justice is therefore unlawful.

”Such conduct could be found to constitute the common law crime of contempt of court, which is punishable by law,” stated a report by the Public Protector.

Last August, a court ruled that the Sunday Times needed to return health records of the minister, which were obtained illegally. However, the judge turned down an application that the newspaper not make any further comments about Tshabalala-Msimang’s health records.

The Health Department criticised this part of the ruling in the newspaper adverts.

”The publication of statements accusing a judge of having delivered a judgement that poses a threat to the rule of law and referring to his reasoning as being incoherent and contradictory might be regarded as having the potential of impacting negatively on the reputation of the court and the judge concerned,” the Public Protector said.

”It might also impact on the confidence that the public should have in the compliance of our courts with their constitutional imperatives relating to the administration of justice. It is, however, a matter that should be attended to by the authority charged with prosecutions.” — Sapa