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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Of Vultures and Watchdogs

photo of Nelson Mandela in 2008

Nelson Mandela in 2008/photo courtesy of South Africa – The Good News


Nelson Mandela is a national treasure for South Africans.  Our government recently issued new banknotes with Mandela’s face on it, a daily reminder of the social, cultural and political capital that the country’s first democratic president created.  Mandela is also globally admired. So it’s understandable that people all around the world to be concerned about the news that Madiba has been hospitalised.

His admission to hospital made frontpage headlines over the weekend, and journalists have kept websites, radio and television bulletins and newspapers buzzing with round-the-clock updates.

This is not the first time that journalists are sniffing around the 94-year old Nobel Prize Laureate’s sickbed. In 2011 it was reported that international news agencies Reuters and Associated Press had hidden cameras trained on his house in the Eastern Cape town of Qunu (where he lives when he is not in Johannesburg). This was widely viewed as in bad taste, as if the agencies were waiting for him to die. Others felt that since Mandela had not been a factor in South Africa’s political development for at least a decade now, the media should leave him in peace to live out his retirement.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to think that Madiba’s passing will not be a huge international news event.

When Mandela was admitted to hospital with a respiratory infection last year, rumors about his condition spread like wildfire because the government failed to send out any information for 48 hours.

This time, the government seemed to have learnt its lesson, and have been sending out more regular communiques. The South African National Editors Forum has welcomed the government’s attempt to keep information flowing.  This did not stop some journalists from complaining that these updates are too vague and do not contain enough detailed information about the former president’s condition and the ‘tests’ that were being carried out.

Public interest or sensationalism?

However, questions about the reporting of Nelson Mandela’s hospitalisation is about much more than just the efficiency of government communications. It raises the familiar ethical conundrum about the line between public and private information, the difference between news in the public interest and the peddling of sensationalism, but also about the political dynamics of this specific news event.

The collective holding of breath about Mandela’s health is not only sentimentalism or the usual response to ‘human interest’ stories. The fading sparkle in Mandela’s eyes is also highly symbolic. As we nervously follow the updates from the hospital, many also worry about the health of the democracy that Nelson Mandela founded.

It has not been a very good year for the ANC government, which is now frequently accused of squandering Mandela’s legacy. Fresh reports of government corruption have become weekly news staple. In August, police massacred striking miners at a platinum mine at Marikana in the Northwest Province in an attack by the state on civilians unprecedented in the democratic era. Findings from a national assessment of mathematics and science educational at schools confirmed that there is now a full-blown crisis in education  in the country. A Bill (the Protection of State Information Bill) that would give the state more powers in classifying information as ‘secret’, widely condemned by media and civil society organizations is about to be signed into law. The current president, Jacob Zuma, is embroiled in a scandal around using taxpayers money to pay for upgrades at his private home.  This follows other scandals, including a rape charge and corruption charges against him. He was acquitted of the former, and the latter charges were dropped. In the light of the ongoing bad news about our current president, we are desperate for good news about a former one.

The news about Mandela’s hospitalisation followed shortly on revelations by the weekly investigative newspaper Mail & Guardian of an auditor’s report that shows how Zuma is beholden to a range of benefactors that bankrolled his lavish and reckless lifestyle. (Incidentally, Mandela was also implicated in the auditor’s report — in 2005 he allegedly made a once-off donation to Zuma to settle his debts.

Reports over the weekend of Madiba’s latest bout of illness to some extent diverted attention away from this latest installment in what has been a very depressing political year (and cynics may say that the current government wouldn’t mind some diversion right now), but it also reminded us that there was a time when South Africa had a president that inspired us and gave us hope.  It also resurrects an earlier rightwing discourse and urban myths peddled on racist blogs about what would supposedly befall whites “when Mandela goes.”  That Mandela has not been a factor in South African politics for more than a decade does not matter in these debates.

Balancing press freedom and privacy

sculpture of Nelson Mandela

Sculpture of Nelson Mandela/photo by Richard McKeever under Creative Commons license

This is the background against which the ethics of covering Nelson Mandela’s hospitalization has to be considered  Of course the free flow of information is important in a democratic environment. In times of crisis, government communication agencies must ensure that citizens have the latest information so as to prevent unfounded panic and scare-mongering. But they should also avoid creating a false sense of security by hermetically sealing off the sources of information.

A news environment without good communication flow becomes stuffy and dark – an ideal place for the fungi of rumor, speculation and gossip to flourish. One could argue that when journalists are deprived of information, they are more likely to engage in stunts like the prank phone call two Australian DJs made to the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge is being treated that resulted in the tragic suicide of the nurse who inadvertently divulged information to the radio station. Keeping a tight lid on information, or creating a punitive atmosphere where whistle-blowers or newspaper sources fear retribution, is sure to attract paparazzi and sensation-seekers.

But if an event like Mandela’s illness poses challenges for government communicators, it also demands of journalists to reflect on the ethics of reporting sickness, death and tragedies. Although the wellbeing of a public figure is a matter of public concern, even public figures and celebrities have a right to privacy at times. It is a standard proviso in media ethical codes that this right to privacy can only be overridden by a legitimate public interest. And this is exactly where things get murkier. What is the difference between public interest and public curiosity? Which section of the fragmented South African and global public are we talking about? And can we even attempt gatekeeping in a postmodern age where information takes on a viral life of its own online? The complexity of these questions should not prevent us from asking them, or grappling with them in a systematic fashion. The ‘public interest’ defence should not become a convenient hiding place. It is more difficult to argue that the intimate details of a former head of state’s health condition are in the public interest – vital for the wellbeing of the citizenry – than is the case with serving politicians.

This is why the publication of the controversial former minister of health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s health records some years ago posed a trickier dilemma, as these pertained directly to her fitness for public office.  The debate then was about whether exposing her alcoholism and apparent jumping of the queue for a liver transplant was a matter for the public interest — even if this meant publishing details from her confidential health records that unlawfully came into the possession of the newspaper.

This is not the case with former president Mandela. The public — locally and internationally — are concerned, and the media can play an important role to console them and keep them informed. But journalists do have to ask themselves how much information is needed, if camping outside hospitals is something we expect of vigilant  watchdogs or whether that is something hungry vultures are more likely to do.  At a time when many are concerned about the health of South African democracy, there may be more meaningful ways to engage with what Mandela’s eventual passing might mean for the country than anxiously waiting to be first to break the news.  The worst approach would be to use the efficacy or otherwise of updates about Mandela as a convenient  stick with which to hit the current government. 



Herman Wasserman, a former print journalist, is professor and deputy head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa.

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