The Presidency is up in arms with the media, accusing reporters of undermining the right to privacy and dignity of president Jacob Zuma and his family after several newspapers last week published 'saucy' revelations about Zuma's second wife Nompumelelo Ntuli (MaNtuli)'s alleged extra-marital affair with her late bodyguard.
However, in a country perceived as the last bastion of media freedom in Africa, some observers wonder whether the so-called right to privacy is applicable in reporting when it comes to public figures.
Seen as fair game
Lesley Cowling, senior lecturer at Wits University's School of Journalism, said in any country, the president is news, and this includes his private life. She said that, unlike in the past when people's sexual and romantic lives were considered to be absolutely private in SA, today they are seen to be fair game.
"This is partly because the HIV/Aids epidemic has forced us as a society to think about things such as multiple sexual partners and condom use, which would once have been considered unsuitable for public discussion. "It is also because there has been a lot of public discussion about the status of women in society and the importance of gender equality. Given that these discussions and debates are already out there, president Zuma's choice of polygamy has attracted attention.
"He needs to take on board that he is a public figure and thus there will always be media interest in his personal life."
The damaging revelations are said to be emanating from a letter sent to the media by a 'concerned member' of the Zuma family. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) has since been called in to find out who that Zuma family member is.
Thobile Nqumalo, content editor at the Durban-based Ilanga newspaper, which first published the report, followed by City Press Online, was quoted by the Saturday Star as saying: "We believe there is more coming. We will be out there hunting. It is not our duty to protect them if the information is reliable."
Cowling, however, slammed those stories, saying they are not 'well-substantiated' and contain repeated unproved conjecture and rumour. "This makes them vulnerable to abuse by someone who may have an axe to grind against her, or against Zuma, and it would be unfortunate if the papers were allowing themselves to be used for such a purpose."
William Bird, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) director, said MaNtuli's alleged affair may well be of interest to the public but it is not in the public interest.
He, however, said two stories put a different perspective that may well locate it in the public interest. There was one in the Mail & Guardian that highlighted a clear gender issue as a result of her having an affair, and where she had to pay some kind of fine as punishment.
The second was the front page story (paid content) in the Saturday Star, which noted that the NIA was allegedly being brought in to find out who it was that sent the letter to the media.
"Sadly the story does not make any issue as to why public resources as such as the NIA should be used to investigate a private matter. On this basis there could have been a legitimate public interest angle.
"The relevance of this is that, while public and high profile citizens can and should expect their private lives to be more public, especially if there is a public interest matter involved, it seems only just to suggest that where there is no clear public interest, the public person's right to privacy should prevail."
Would seem very sensational
Bird said while it would seem very sensational to hear that the president's wife has had an affair, he is not sure if that is any of other people's business.