Outspoken workers in the public health sector are being gagged by the government, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) said on Wednesday, reports M&G Online

Spokesperson Jane Duncan said suspensions within the sector and the dismissal of deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge suggest that free speech needs "intensive care".

She said the suspension of Dr Nokuzola Ntshona, medical superintendent at the Frere Hospital who wrote to President Thabo Mbeki accusing Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang of turning a blind eye to a crisis, is a perfect example.

"This situation raises serious questions about the state of free speech in the public sector. These events strongly suggest the existence of a witch-hunt to stop further embarrassment to the Eastern Cape health department."

Ntshona's suspension came in the wake of the sacking last week of Madlala-Routledge for visiting the hospital unannounced and declaring the maternity section a national emergency, in addition to flying to Spain to attend an HIV/Aids conference without authorisation.

Duncan said the FXI has in the past dealt with an attempt by the Eastern Cape health department to gag doctors from speaking to the media.

"Last year, the long-standing battle between Eastern Cape-based Dr Costa Gazi came to an end, when he was reinstated after being fired from the department of health for a media statement in which he criticised the minister of health.

"The FXI has also been reliably informed that a number of doctors have been told that they cannot speak to the media, even in their individual capacities."

She said those who stand to lose the most from the "clampdown" on freedom of expression are ordinary health workers who are far more vulnerable to victimisation than more high-profile figures.

"It is unclear which of the statements that Ntshona has made to the media can be regarded as 'inaccurate information'.

"Indeed, we suspect that she is being victimised precisely for supplying the media with accurate information about the state of health in the Eastern Cape."

The FXI has called for the immediate lifting of the suspension of Ntshona.

On Wednesday, the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) said the suspension of Ntshona had created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among conscientious public officials.

"The PSAM is gravely concerned by the precedent set by the suspension of Dr Ntshona [superintendent of the Cecilia Makiwane hospital].

"This suspension creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, which will have the perverse consequence of preventing conscientious public officials from meeting their constitutional obligations," a PSAM statement said.

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