OPINION Why the state media gag on Life Esidimeni is wrong

Family members of psychiatric patients who died earlier this year hold an ‘Esidimeni 37’ prayer vigil outside Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu’s offices. The 37 patients died after being transferred from Life Esidimeni into the care of NGOs. Findings of the investigation into the tragedy would be released next month, health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba said. Picture Credit: Antonio Muchave. ©Sowetan
Family members of psychiatric patients who died earlier this year hold an ‘Esidimeni 37’ prayer vigil outside Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu’s offices. The 37 patients died after being transferred from Life Esidimeni into the care of NGOs. Findings of the investigation into the tragedy would be released next month, health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba said. Picture Credit: Antonio Muchave. ©Sowetan

Government lawyers in the Life Esidimeni hearings have managed to stop the media 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 1‚712 people were moved last year from Life Esidimeni homes and hurriedly moved into hospitals or ill-equipped NGOs‚ leading to dozens of deaths.

The state admits its handling of the disaster was wrong and everyone is working together to find answers‚ give families closure and a payout.

The proceedings are open to families and journalists and are broadcast live but media interviews with anyone involved are not allowed.

'He was so hungry that he almost ate a serviette' - Esidimeni victim 

The lawyers are legally entitled to do this‚ but it is not in the spirit of a healing arbitration process.

Government was doing well to apologise for the tragedy‚ take “responsibility” as the advocate’s opening statement put it‚ and allow the families some closure.

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 printing factual errors in the Sunday Times‚ having to secretly find someone to check the most inane 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 at all and lawyers‚ 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.

As a journalist covering the hearings‚ it is becoming increasingly difficult because 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 hearing judge‚ retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ to stop the media from approaching families to ask them questions.

Hutamo was unsuccessful.

Given that the media exposed some of what occurred in the Life Esidimeni saga and is faithfully reporting on the arbitration process on behalf of the public‚ to silence them like this is not in line with the Constitution or fair.

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.

The Gauteng Premier insisted 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 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 “was a government that cares“‚ the Gauteng province’s lawyers really didn’t need it tarnish the good they were doing.

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