Monday, August 27, 2007

Dr Beetroot and the Stolen Records


This is my take on the whole Manto Tshabalala-Msimang vs The Sunday Times controversy.

Being an Information Security professional I am going to relate it as I see it. And the way I see it both the minister and the paper are correct.

For those of you who read this blog and are not from South Africa I'm going to put a bit of background down for you. If you are from South Africa you can safely skip the next little bit - you know this already.

Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is the Minister of Health and is also known as Dr Beetroot because of her criticized belief that AIDS is cured better through vegetables than medicine. This belief kills people every day and the opposition want her to leave the government because of it.

The Sunday Times newspaper is the most popular weekly newspaper in South Africa and they published an article that hinted very strongly that the minister was an alcoholic without actually saying it outright. They worked this out because of evidence that came from her medical records when she was in hospital and had alcohol when she was not supposed to.

The Minister has not denied the fact that she had alcohol while in hospital but has been upset that the Sunday Times had a copy of her medical records. (This is typical government spin doctoring; according to Nick Naylor from Thank You For Smoking: "That's the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you're never wrong". But thats not the point of this post.)

The point is that the Sunday Times did not steal the documentation. They merely happened to get a copy of it. And, once they had a copy, it is their duty to report on news they think the country should know about. And, of course, the whole country is following this very closely so the Sunday Times was right to publish.

So, where does information come from? That is the big question. In Information Security we have a saying "protect all the information that you don't want to read about in tomorrow's newspaper". The Sunday Times is a respectable, "non-tabloid" newspaper. I can't picture their staff crawling around in hospitals, looking for medical records or hacking into medical systems.

Somehow there was a leak in the hospital and this is who the minister should be going after but its a lot easier to sue a newspaper than a hospital especially for the minister of health who would like to pretend that all is well with patient records in hospitals.

The Minister is right that her private details should be kept private but once it is in the newspaper it is too late. It should have been protected from the start and the hospital is (in my humble opinion not being a lawyer) to blame.

If the Minister does take up the issue with the hospital then some questions may arise as to why she used a private hospital for an operation that could have been done at a public hospital and why the government does not protect patients (even at private hospitals) from having their records go missing, ending up at newspapers. Maybe California can help her out.
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