There's a need for some introspection by the media about the reporting of the health of the Minister of Health, writes The Star in an editorial.  The problem is that there is not yet any hard evidence that the exercise of her duties has been affected. 

The Star writes in an editorial:

We, as the South African media, have to do some soul-searching about the Manto Tshabalala-Msimang affair.

That comment is not made to denigrate the work of our professional colleagues elsewhere who, we believe, strive at all times to apply the universal journalistic principles of balance, fairness and accuracy. And any aggrieved party has recourse to the press ombudsman and the courts to ultimately test the veracity of what was published.

But our fervent hope is that currently there is a debate in newsrooms across the country regarding the worrisome and broader misunderstanding of the role of the media and the ethical considerations which dictate, for instance, coverage of the minister of health's alleged misconduct.

Issues that should arise in the debate are individual privacy; when do we publish information that's not contemporary; and whether the journalistic test of "minister drunk at home, his or her business; minister drunk at the office, our (the public's) business" still applies.

The ANC this week accused the Sunday Times and the rest of the media of violations of the minister's right to privacy. At face value, the Sunday Times did publish details of the minister's health which are regarded as a confidential matter between patient and doctor.

The argument by some would be that the publication of the information – related to surgery she had on her shoulder and to her liver transplant – is in the public interest because the allegations show misconduct on her part.
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The cause for concern is that, so far, no hard evidence has been produced from the information obtained that the minister's official duties have been affected by her alleged misconduct.

There is no doubt that Tshabalala-Msimang is a controversial figure, and in this column we have called for her removal because of the inept handling of her portfolio and her stance on Aids and ARVs.

Yet, should those matters not have been addressed in the context of the country's health policy and not – as the ANC claims – through crude character assassination?

Was there sufficient public interest to invade her privacy to the extent of exposing her medical records (exacerbated by the fact that these files are now, seemingly, missing)?

For the media, it's important that we answer the questions raised and, if necessary, set our own reporting parameters lest the public (and the government) do it for us.

This editorial appeared in The Star on 22 August 2007.