The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has called on President Mbeki to stop the planned prosecution of the Sunday Times over its publishing of information from Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s medical records.

According to the Sunday Times, the Minister was abusive towards staff at hospitals and drank alcohol excessively while a patient.

The internationally respected HIV/AIDS activist organisation says that it is “extremely concerned” by reports that Sunday Times editor Mondli Makhanya and journalist Jocelyn Maker have been threatened with arrest and prosecution under section 17 of the National Health Act.

According to lawyers for the journalists, the two are expected to be arrested some time this week.

“This smacks of intimidation of the Sunday Times, including other media who are being ‘taught a lesson’, and of political reprisal for publicly revealing facts about our Minister of Health,” said the organisation in a statement.

While the TAC insists that it supports the right to privacy and confidentiality of medical records, it says that these are trumped by the importance of disclosing information about the Minister of Health that could affect the lives of all South Africans.

It claims that while violations of patients’ privacy occur daily at hospitals and clinics across the country, due mainly to bad management, insufficient resources and inadequate planning, these are rarely prosecuted with any vigour – if at all.

The organisation has described reports that a squad of police, including a senior police officer, have been deployed to an ‘investigation’ on the matter as “unacceptable.”

“We appeal to President Mbeki to stop this. We warn that it is a slippery slope from arresting an editor to the murder of pioneering journalists such as Carlos Cardoso – killed for exposing the corruption that took hold in post liberation Mozambique,” said the TAC.

On Wednesday, businessman Tokyo Sexwale, who is said have ambitions as a Presidential candidate, commented on the right to media freedom while speaking at an event marking the Star newspaper’s 120th anniversary in Johannesburg.

“You have the right, you don’t have to ask for that right… you have won that right by being citizens of this country… Let nobody in this country preach otherwise… the right was won through many years of struggle,” he told guests, adding that the right to freedom of expression was key to the ANC’s Freedom Charter.

“Let us hold the ANC accountable to this founding statement of freedom of expression… It is important to remind the ruling party that they are not ruling anybody… you [the ANC] are a servant of the people and not the other way around.”

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