Apartheid might have gone, but democracy in South Africa seems to be on a slippery terrain.
Certainly one cannot take for granted media freedom. Look for instance what is happening to two leading editors for exposing the highhanded ways of the country's Health Minister at a Cape Town clinic.
AdvertisementA lawyer for Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and deputy managing editor Jocelyn Maker said a couple of days ago that they would hand themselves over to police in Cape Town later in the week.
They would do this rather than wait to be arrested for the alleged possession of medical records belonging to Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
Lawyer Eric van den Berg said Makhanya and Maker had not yet been formally charged, but that they heard it on good authority that their arrest was imminent.
"They have decided to make themselves available to the police, so the matter can be dealt with as soon as possible," he said.
The records, which allegedly went missing from Cape Town Medi-Clinic, are believed to be the source of the August 12 expose by the paper which revealed that during two stays at the clinic, the health minister allegedly dispatched staff to buy alcohol and was abusive to staff.
It is illegal in terms of the National Health Act to gain access to another person's health records without their permission.
Political parties and civic organisations reacted with concern yesterday to the news, saying it had serious implications for press freedom.
The Sunday Times argued in a recent court case brought by the minister to prevent further publication of her records, that the documents were of public interest as they focused on Tshabalala-Msimang's ability to do her job as health minister.
Cape Town mayor and Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said her party would pursue the matter in Parliament, particularly with regard to allegations that Makhanya and Maker's cellphones were being tapped.
"While no one is above the law, the warning lights are definitely flashing when the editor of the country's biggest newspaper and the leader of the biggest opposition party are arrested or threatened with arrest.
"Ordinary South African will be forgiven for thinking that the ANC (African National Congress) is fundamentally opposed to democratic freedom," said Zille.
She was referring to her arrest last month on the Cape Flats during an anti-drugs protest march.
News of Makhanya and Maker's imminent arrest follow the release last month of a controversial policy document of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), to be discussed at their December conference, which looks at stricter media regulation, and comments allegedly made by Minister in the Office of the President Essop Pahad that the government should consider withdrawing advertising over Sunday Times' reports on Tshabalala-Msimang.
Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille said yesterday it was a "sad day for press freedom," but like the South African National Editors' Forum, De Lille supported the idea of resolving the continuing dispute in a court of law.