Is Mbalula’s sex scandal “in the public interest”?

It’s no denying that a lot had happened this past weekend, and many of that had everything to do with the media and how it does what it does. Of course many of these reports were and still are worrying. Or at least they are to me and a few like me. I am not sure when I would have sat down and write this piece but I should give credit to Media Matters’ this week’s issue which addressed quite important issues that got me thinking and asked the right questions that need to be answered. And I hope this post will attempt to just do that.

City Press newspaper alleged over the weekend in its “exclusive” report that sports minister Fikile Mbalula had unprotected sex twice with the 27-year-old model who requested anonymity but was however identified by Sunday Independent, among other newspapers, as Joyce Omphemetse Molamu. Molamu now claims she is pregnant, carrying Mbalula’s child. Mbalula, on the other hand, had as a result attempted to stop the newspaper from publishing the allegations but “changed his mind”, so said City Press editor Ferial Haffajee on the front-page on Sunday.

In his last minute response to the allegations (not sure before or after the court challenge failure) Mbalula claimed Molamu was a “known… extortionist in her social circles”. The minister accused the newspaper of publishing “untested and baseless allegations” and that such was “entirely unjustifiable” and that Molamu was trying to extort money from him, adding that: “We have SMS messages that demonstrate that she is telling lies and that she is using City Press to pursue her interest to extort money from our client or to make money from City Press.” Mbalula said the allegations were “false and defamatory”, saying their publication was not only unlawful but that it was in violation of the news Press Codes.

What was quite shocking about the whole saga was the minister’s wanting the newspaper to “submit the woman to a medical examination in order to prove the pregnancy allegation” which I personally thought was pathetic because that is not the duty of the newspaper. If that is the case, this would mean all newspapers and other broadcasting media would have to test and verify through whatever means every allegation brought before them even before they could decide whether to publish/broadcast or not, which would proved difficult to do, I think. But what is clear is that the allegations were published as in “public interest” because Mbalula had apparently preached safe sex last year during World Aids Day in which he appealed to us youth to be faithful to our partners. Another reason is that the allegations were seen as contradictory to ANCYL’s “one boyfriend, one girlfriend” campaign, according to a Sunday Independent report.

It was only the allegations had been widely published that Mbalula took it like a man, sort of, and apologised for his promiscuity and infidelity (which gives the impression that they might have been true to begin with. I mean, why apologise for something that’s never happened?), saying he had “consulted with my family and provided them with information and explanation for my acts and omissions in regard to the allegations that are swirling in the media”. “I have apologised to my family, particularly to my wife, as I should have known better. I have been trying to deal with this matter, in a private manner, for the past three months and when it became clear to me that this woman was prepared to extort money from me, I then decided to cease all communication with her as I was not prepared to be blackmailed”, he said, but added that Joyce’s pregnancy would “remain unproven to me”.

It is worth noting that the incidents – where the two had unprotected sex such that the minister even paid Joyce some money to do abortion, which she later decided not to do – apparently took place at the time when Mbalula was separated from his wife with whom he has a five-month-old child.

Following this it is important to establish whether or not such publication was actually and indeed in the public interest. City Press editor Ferial Haffajee defended the publication on Thursday this week – in response to Daily Maverick columnist Chris Vick’s criticism of whether Mbalula had “become the ANC’s latest political Icarus” – saying that the “private lives of politicians are of legitimate public interest when it impacts on their reputation and standing and reflects poorly on their commitment to policy”. Haffajee was referring to “the uproar when it was found that ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma had had unprotected sex with the daughter of a friend and again later when, as president, he fathered a child with soccer boss Ivan Khoza’s daughter, Sonono.” She asked: “Why is Mbalula’s case of any lesser public interest?”

In establishing this “in the public interest” defence Pierre De Vos eloquently stated that: “In a democracy it is appropriate that public figures are sometimes treated differently than private citizens and that the former sometimes be entitled to a lesser degree of privacy than the latter. In an open and democratic society, voters have a right to be informed about all aspects of the lives of our politicians that they believe are relevant to enable them to make an informed decision about whether to support a particular politician or not. The difficulty is that it will not always be apparent what information voters would deem relevant.” De Vos further asked whether people’s (and even politicians’ and leaders’) sexual orientation should ever be relevant. He asked whether their “extra-marital dalliance” would be of any relevance in undertaking their office duties.

According to De Vos information about the private life of a politician “should not be deemed relevant and it should be assumed that it would not be in the public interest for the media to publish this kind of information about a politician. But this will change when these private aspects of a politician’s life relate directly to the job description of the politician or where the private conduct contradicts the publicly expressed views and professed values of that politician.” For example, he said when a politician campaigns against same-sex marriage and argues that marriage is a “solemn religious pact between two people of opposite sexes (to the exclusion of all others), the fact that the politician had an extra-marital affair with somebody of the same sex or of the opposite sex, would obviously be relevant and publishing such revelations would be in the public interest. But if a politician belongs to a party like the ANC who supports gay rights, then revelations about a politician’s sexual orientation should probably be deemed irrelevant”.

He, however, warned that in some instances this might be quite “murky”, saying: “Personal characteristics of a politician like honesty, integrity, diligence and fidelity may affect the manner in which that politician does his or her job. Where the private actions of a Minister suggest that he or she is not honest, is not capable of diligence and lacks integrity, this might well have a potential impact on the manner in which that Minister does his or her job. Thus, if a Minister has been convicted of theft or fraud or is a known and un-rehabilitated alcoholic that would surely always be relevant as it would probably have a very serious impact on the manner he or she does the job the person was appointed to do.”

In its analysis Media Matters on Monday indicated that Sunday World had excluded City Press’ angle that the minister “was not preaching the gospel of faithfulness he preached to the young” and that nowhere did the newspaper [Sunday World] mention Mbalula as having used taxpayers’ money in his encounters with the woman nor the “potential issue [of] parental responsibility and maintenance (which would have made it a legal issue as opposed to just a moral one)”. It noted as a result that an inclusion of these angels may have amounted to an invasion of Mbalula’s privacy, and that the minister was of course “well within his rights to take any publication that lacked the public interest side of the story to the Press Council”. Besides the “in the public interest” defence, Media Matters asked whether we should give a damn what the minister (and all other public officials) gets up to and does on his private time.

And to decide whether Mbalula’s alleged affair publication (my emphasis) provides an indication of how he will perform his official duties as the sports minister – the main reason why Haffajee said she decided to publish the story – will depend on each case which De Vos said “getting [it] right will not always be easy as it requires one to make an overall assessment, taking into account all relevant factors and then weighing these up to decide whether the revelation of private information about a politician is in the public interest or not”. But whatever allegations the media decides to publication, it is important to guard against the danger of publishing information about a person for no other reason than to satisfy the prurient interests of the public in salacious information about the sex lives of public figures, warned De Vos, as did Vick.

“But as a general rule, I think the private morality of a politician has nothing to do with us voters and we should allow our politicians to live their lives in private – no matter how messy these lives might be. But the public morality of politicians requires that they are more or lest honest, that they should not behave like rank hypocrites and that they should more or less practice what they preach. If they fail to do so, it will say something about their public morality and then their private lives should become fair game for the media”, wrote De Vos in January 29, 2009, following deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe’s reported secret affair which has since found to have been not true.

I recommend the following analysis by De Vos:

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