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South Africans Debate Media Freedom Versus Privacy Rights

Media experts in South Africa are debating whether the news media should be allowed to violate an individual's right to privacy if it is in the public interest. The debate was sparked by the publication of confidential medical records of a senior Cabinet minister. Correspondent Scott Bobb has this report from Johannesburg.

A seminar sponsored by the South African Human Rights Commission was the latest event in an ongoing public debate over whether freedom of the press and other individual rights are being eroded 13 years after the end of apartheid.

The debate has been heightened by the publication in a major newspaper, the Sunday Times, of personal medical records of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

The records revealed that while the minister was being treated for a lung infection in a Capetown hospital two years ago she ordered hospital staff to purchase alcohol for her guests and herself.

The minister has been a controversial figure and often criticized by AIDS and social activists. The report brought renewed calls for her resignation.

The chairman of the South African Medical Association, Kgosi Letlape, said the release of the medical records broke a sacred tenet of his profession.

"The cornerstone of our profession is privacy and confidentiality. That's the key tenet to how we practice medicine. That's what makes us professionals," said Letlape.

The government said the release of the confidential health information was illegal and violated the right to privacy guaranteed by South Africa's 1996 constitution. The constitution, drafted after the end of apartheid, contains strong human rights protections.

The newspaper's editors, facing arrest, argued that the information was in the public interest because it raised the question of whether the minister was fit to occupy the senior-most health position in the country.

Ironically, the confrontation erupted on the 30th anniversary of a major media crackdown by the apartheid government and brought unflattering comparisons to that repressive period.

The director of South Africa's Freedom of Expression Institute, Jane Duncan, told the panel that the dissemination of medical information without the consent of its owner is a serious violation of privacy rights.

But she said public figures abandon some of their privacy when they decide to serve the public. And as a result their claim to privacy sometimes may be outweighed by public interest.

"A general rule of thumb is that if the information relates to a person's official functions then the rights of access to information under freedom-of-expression can and should take precedence over the right to privacy," she said.

However, the news director of the government-owned South Africa Broadcasting Corporation, Snuki Zikalala, disagreed. He said his organization did not broadcast the report because it is not in the public's interest to expose its leaders.

"Even if they are a public figure, they do have their own dignity. We must respect people's dignity. Public figure or not an individual has a right to live on this earth and not be destroyed," said Zikalala.

A law professor at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University, Ian Currie, said the case raises a difficult human rights question.

"It's a very, very difficult balance to strike, the balance between privacy and other conflicting rights and interests, in this case what we are calling the public interest," he said.

He notes that the constitution protects privacy as well as access to information, freedom of the press and other rights. But the constitution does not rank one above the other. As a result, the media must seek the proper balance on a case-by-case basis.

In this case, a South African judge ruled that the newspaper's possession of the health minister's medical records was illegal but that their publication was acceptable because of the public's right to know (public interest).

During the seminar, SABC News Director Zikalala complained that commercialization was pushing South Africa's news media toward unacceptable levels of sensationalism which often violated social and moral values.

But he denied recent accusations of pro-government bias in government-owned media.

"The SABC is not a mouthpiece of the government of the day, nor should it broadcast its opinion of government policies. We don't broadcast government opinions unless they are related directly to broadcasting matters," he said.

Several high-profile staff members of SABC resigned after Zikalala issued a list of government critics who could not be interviewed on air.

And the national broadcaster has been accused of disseminating negative reports on government critics while ignoring unfavorable news about some high-profile officials.

The SABC withdrew from the National Editors Forum, which acts as a media watchdog, after it expressed support for publishing the health minister's medical records.

Media advocate Duncan noted that rising readership among middle and lower income South Africans has encouraged the growth of the so-called tabloid newspapers, which thrive on sensationalist reporting.

She agreed that commercialization is a growing concern, but argued that there are ways to deal with it such as anti-concentration measures rather than press regulation.

"We need a debate about how to deal with the problem of media commercialization that is more nuanced and that deals with causes rather than with symptoms. Greater state control is not the solution," said Duncan.

Legal experts note that a new privacy law concerning personal data, such as financial and computer records, is still being formulated. And they add that some existing laws need more work.

But they say the fact that these matters are being debated openly is a sign that freedom of expression in South Africa is well although it faces many challenges.