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Mandela's health: Shooting the messenger

The media covering the illness of Nelson Mandela were unjustly attacked by the government, the family and the public.
Last modified: 30 Jun 2013 17:13
Mandela's daughter called journalists covering her father’s health “vultures” and “racist” [EPA]

It's a common strand among most societies in crisis that when the going gets tough the media gets blamed. Governments sometimes do it as a way of masking their mistakes; people do it as a way of dealing with their sense of loss or confusion. Segments of the media also tend to cannibalise their own, most frequently unfortunately in response to being beaten on a story by the opposition.

Importantly, the media part of the time deserves to be blamed. There are as many incompetent, inexperienced or simply unethical journalists as there are bad lawyers, dentists or fund managers. Yet the blanket dismissal of media simply because its agenda is not in accordance with your own strikes at the principle of free expression which should be cherished by all societies that have any pretensions to democracy.

So it is in South Africa. The media covering the illness of Nelson Mandela has been sharply attacked by the government, the family, and members of the public. The foreign media in particular being singled out for criticism.

Nelson Mandela's oldest daughter Makaziwe Mandela recently gave an exclusive interview to the state broadcaster SABC in which she launched an unbridled offensive on those who've been covering the state of her father's health. Among the words she used in her tirade were "vultures", "racist" and "crass". Here's a direct quote: "It is like, truly, vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo, waiting there, you know, for the last carcasses," and in relation to the international media; "I don't want to say this, but I am going to say it; there is a sort of a racist element with many of the foreign media where they just cross boundaries".

The allegation of racism rests on her belief that Nelson Mandela is being covered with less respect than say the Pope or Margaret Thatcher because he is black. That is quite simply at best a silly statement, at worst offensive. Apart from anything else it rests on assumption about a white ethnic dominance within the foreign media, which is in itself racist, and a direct rebuttal of the principle of non-racism, which has driven the political change of recent decades.

It must be made clear that the media has no more special rights or privileges than any member of the public. It should be bound by the same social values of the society within it operates. In the specific case of Nelson Mandela there are many in the media appalled at the reporting of specific details about Nelson Mandela's physical condition. It is indeed a violation of patient/doctor confidentiality, and is indeed crossing the line between the public right to knowledge and pure salaciousness. The criticism of those who reported these details is as strong within the media as it is in the wider public.

Yet to issue a blanket condemnation for the actions of a few is to denigrate journalists for being journalists - and that is denial both of freedom of information and history.

There are many seasoned journalists among those reporting in South Africa at present. There are correspondents, camera people and photographers who have covered this story for decades. There is no doubt that the work of international journalists in the stormy 1980's played a critical part in informing the world of the brutal excesses of the apartheid regime. Journalists put their lives at risk to tell the truth of what the National Party government and its security organs attempted to conceal - there is not one of these veterans reporting in South Africa at the moment that did not have a friend beaten, jailed, deported or indeed - killed.

It may well serve the critics including Makaziwe Mandela to see the media, particularly the international contingent, in a wider context. Most were doing their jobs in the days of apartheid, and most are simply doing their jobs now.