Do you think the Sunday Times report on Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s medical history infringed on her right to dignity? Do you think that the report was published in the public’s interest? Where do you draw the line between human rights and public interest?
Yes, the Sunday Times did infringe on the minister’s right to dignity. Not entirely, there are concerns and motivations which impact and influence the decision to publish such as profits. The two are distinct concepts. Most fundamental human rights stay constant while public interest is a more fluid concept and changes according to the socio-economic and political environment within which it is being assessed.
In certain situations both concepts can overlap. This was clearly demonstrated in the case of the minister.
What is your view on the Film and Publications Act? Its initial intention was to protect the sexual exploitation of children but the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has serious concerns about its threats to press freedom. Do you think its concerns are valid?
The activism by the media, demonstrated significantly of late is symptomatic of democracies. It has become critical now more than ever for the media to agitate for and secure sound and justifiably fair limitations to the right to freedom and expression. The need to set these parameters must be seen in the context of other fundamental rights, the rights to freedom of expression and the concomitant responsibilities of the media in a democracy.
Media collectives and their response to the current dynamic legislative environment is captured in their responses to the Film and Publications Act, the recommendation for a tribunal and the Protection of Personal Information bill.
Sanef’s concerns are indeed valid especially seen in the context of the consequences for freedom of expression being unjustly restricted.
Where is the biggest concern with human rights infringement in the media?
For us as the commission the biggest concern would be the invasion of personal rights: the right to privacy, dignity, the right to access to information (publishing information that they should not be), the rights of arrested and detained people, the right to freedom of religion, belief, and opinion, freedom of association and political rights. The right to freedom of expression if used irresponsibly can arguably impact on and infringe a plethora of human rights, most common of those listed above.
Any other concerns?
The media contributing to reinforcing harmful stereotypes such as non-nationals in SA. That can definitely improve.
I think the same applies with marginalised people in our society. For example, I recently saw a headline in one of the tabloids about “The Flying Gogo”. In a society where witchcraft is still an issue, I just think it was irresponsible to run an article like that.
How does the South African media compare to other African countries and the rest of the world in terms of responsible reporting and respecting human rights?
A response to this question is multidimensional. First we have to compare with established democracies and then compare with the continent. On each level of comparison different results are yielded.
Because our bill of rights is so progressive, South African media has the advantage of being less restricted than many of those on the continent.
Another perspective is to consider freedom of expression as a means to test local media and look at its track record post-1994 with regard to freedom of expression as a fundamental right on its own.
A comparative analysis would require the consolidation of factors impacting on the media pre-1994 as a starting point as well.
This Q & A first appeared in The Media magazine.