Why the state media gag amid 118 psychiatric patients’ deaths?
As arbitration hearings continue in the Life Esidimeni saga, government lawyers have stopped the media from speaking to families and lawyers‚ preventing basic fact-checking, writes Katharine Child
Government lawyers in the hearings about the deaths of mental health patients moved out of Life Esidimeni’s care, have managed to stop the media from speaking to families and lawyers‚ even preventing fact-checking of what journalists have heard in complicated testimony.
The arbitration process is discussing why and how, last year, 1‚712 people were taken out of Life Esidimeni homes and hurriedly moved into hospitals or ill-equipped non-governmental organisations‚ leading to more than a hundred deaths.
The state admits that its handling of the disaster was wrong, saying all parties are working together to find answers‚ and give families closure and financial compensation. The proceedings are open to families and journalists and are broadcast live, but media interviews with anyone involved are not allowed.
The lawyers are legally entitled to do this‚ but it is not in the spirit of a healing arbitration process.
To silence them like this is neither fair nor in line with the Constitution. It may be the letter of the contract‚ but it is not in the spirit of arbitration and it undermines the transparency of the process
The government was doing well in apologising for the tragedy‚ taking "responsibility" as the advocate’s opening statement put it‚ and allowing the families some closure. So did the Gauteng government really have to impose this media gag?
The state has used a clause in the arbitration hearing agreement that family lawyers signed to ban journalists from speaking to anyone. I have come close to writing factual errors‚ having to secretly find someone to check the most mundane of facts with.
This is the clause that family representatives‚ Section 27‚ Solidarity‚ Legal Aid have agreed to: "The parties will provide one another reasonable notice of the content of any public statement relating to the arbitration dispute resolution process prior to the making of such statement."
This agreement requires people to know what will be said to media‚ but has been used to bar any media speaking to families and lawyers at all‚ even when reasonable notice is given. Section 27 attorneys appear not to have opposed this interpretation and do not answer any questions‚ even when given reasonable notice.
For journalists covering the hearings‚ it is becoming increasingly difficult as we cannot ask for clarity and the different testimonies are sometimes contradictory or unclear. Government spokespeople are reticent to answer our questions. "What‚" asked one family member, "are they trying to hide?"
Government advocate Tebogo Hutamo even went so far as to try to get an order from the hearing judge‚ retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ to stop the media from approaching families to ask them questions. He was unsuccessful.
Given that the media exposed some of what occurred in the Life Esidimeni saga and are faithfully reporting on the arbitration process on behalf of the public‚ to silence them like this is neither fair nor in line with the Constitution.
It may be the letter of the contract‚ but it is not in the spirit of arbitration and it undermines the transparency of the process and the state’s attitude, despite the Gauteng premier insisting that the state was transparent.
The premier’s office says: "Government would like to reassure members of the public of its commitment to this process and transparency. All evidence is given under oath in an open hearing to ensure that only truthful and accurate information is provided. Affected family members will also be granted an opportunity to give evidence under oath."
But try find out if former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu has been subpoenaed, or where the deceased patients’ medical records are (that were requested), or who is testifying next — then tell me it is transparent.
After saying sorry‚ admitting responsibility and trying to convince us it is "a government that cares"‚ the Gauteng province’s lawyers really didn’t need to tarnish the good they were doing.