The Sunday Times has welcomed the court ruling on its publication of medical details about Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.  In an editorial, the paper highlights the judge's decision that there was clear public interest in the matter.

The Sunday Times writes in a September 2 editorial:

The courts have ruled that the Sunday Times was correct to expose Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s unbecoming behaviour during her stay at the Cape Town Medi-Clinic.

In an important ruling this week, Johannesburg High Court Judge Mahomed Jajbhay stated that “there was in fact a pressing need for the public to be informed about the information contained in the medical records” of the minister. He added that t he publication of the unlawfully obtained, controversial information was capable of contributing to a debate in our democratic society about a politician in the exercise of her functions.

Judge Jajbhay also underlined the importance of the media in holding politicians and public officials accountable on behalf of the public. He did this by clearing the way for the Sunday Times and other media to continue investigating and reporting on the minister’s medical history, where it affected her ability to perform her job.

Judge Jajbhay also rejected the minister’s request for a court order that the Sunday Times reporters who wrote the story should destroy all the reporting notes they took to write the article.

The article detailed how the minister drank, took a cocktail of drugs and alcohol and abused staff while she was in hospital for a shoulder operation in 2005. The minister has yet to deny or even properly explain the incidents uncovered by the Sunday Times.

A later article revealed that the minister had needed a liver transplant because of years of alcohol abuse, and that she had been thrown out of Botswana for — among other thefts — stealing a watch from a patient under anaesthetic. The minister’s only response to this damaging report was that there was a “long story” behind her theft conviction.

Judge Jajbhay rapped the Sunday Times over the knuckles for having shared the documents with medical experts whom we used to interpret complex medical information.

The Sunday Times respects the court’s criticism and accepts the censure without reservation.

In recent weeks we have been criticised for gaining access to a patient’s medical records and reporting on them. We respect doctor-patient confidentiality and would never publish such information willy-nilly. In the case of Tshabalala-Msimang, the information we published had nothing to do with intimate details of her medical condition. It was about her abuse of position: compelling hospital staff to break the rules by sending them out to buy alcohol, for instance.

We decided to publish a series of articles on the minister’s drinking and thieving because these traits are relevant to her ability to do her job and hold public office. As Health minister, Tshabalala-Msimang is responsible for the wellbeing of millions of South Africans. She holds the lives of the poorest in her hands.

We know that South Africa’s health system is failing them. Newborn babies are dying in their thousands in maternity hospitals across the country. You have to be in a drunken haze not to see that as a national crisis. Tshabalala-Msimang has made it clear that she sees the deaths as statistically in order.

As we pointed out in papers presented to court, Tshabalala-Msimang’s drinking makes a mockery of the Department of Health’s campaign against alcohol abuse — a major cause of rape and murder in South Africa.

Tshabalala-Msimang’s unorthodox ideas about the treatment of HIV and Aids fly in the face of accepted scientific knowledge of the illness. Her grim determination to hobble South Africa’s treatment programmes and drag her feet while millions die clearly call into question her ability to make rational decisions, and the role that alcohol abuse might play in that.

The fact that Tshabalala-Msimang received a liver transplant, when standard procedure says she should not, because of her drinking right up to the procedure, points to abuse of office at great cost to other deserving recipients.

This week the ANC admitted that Mbeki had known about Tshabalala-Msimang’s thieving ways and still appointed her to office. As we reported recently she is still drinking on her precious, new liver.

We have been accused of waging a vendetta against her. We are not. Our stance on the suitability of the minister for office has been consistent over the years. It is a sentiment shared by millions who use public health services.

Finally, we emphasise that we did not steal any records. The Sunday Times does not condone theft. We are as curious as everybody else as to what happened to the original documents and the backup electronic version.