Govt commended for updates on Mandela

Johannesburg - Information on former president Nelson Mandela's admission to hospital is being made available quicker than previously, a Rhodes University academic said on Monday.

"Last time there was more of a gap, uncertainty," professor of journalism Herman Wasserman said on Monday.

"This time information seems to be coming out more quickly," said Wasserman, deputy head at the school of journalism.

This was after the presidency issued a statement on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday to brief the media on the anti-apartheid stalwart and Nobel Peace Prize co-winner's admission for tests "consistent with his age".

On Monday, presidency spokesperson Mac Maharaj responded to a Sapa inquiry to say there was no cause for alarm.

According to Monday's statement doctors would conduct further tests.

The public and family were also thanked for messages of support, and the media for affording him privacy.

It added that Monday was the anniversary of Mandela receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with former apartheid-era president FW de Klerk in 1993.

This was in contrast to what was described as a "media blackout" when Mandela was admitted to Johannesburg's Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg in January 2011 for a respiratory infection.

The dearth of information after one release issued on the Wednesday from the Nelson Mandela Foundation then escalated to rumours that he had died.

The Observer journalist David Smith wrote: "... the Twitter rumour mill ran wild - not the social network's finest hour."

Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes also wrote after that time: "So while the Mandela family and African National Congress leaders visited Milpark on Thursday, the rest of the country huddled as if in a national waiting room, anxiously parsing fragmentary and confusing news reports for information."

On the Friday, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and SA National Defence Force Surgeon General Vejaynand Ramlakan eventually gave details of Mandela's treatment and recovery at a packed media briefing.

The foundation only issued a statement on the Monday after he returned home. Later it emerged that there had been a disagreement over who should handle communications over his health.

At a meeting with editors it was agreed that communication on his health would be improved in future and would be through the presidency.

Vulture journalism

Wasserman said journalists also had to consider what sort of extra information they needed. "Everybody is wishing him well and there is a collective desire in the country to have good news.

"But at the same time, it calls for a bit of restraint, holding back. A point at which the media must wait and see."

But, he said if it had been President Jacob Zuma in hospital the public interest factor would have been stronger than public curiosity.

People would wonder in that case if there was somebody in place to govern, and so the desire for more information would be understandable.

Getting relevant information out was important to counter the possibility of "vulture journalism".

"If you send information promptly, the stronger is the need to not camp out [outside a hospital].

"Withholding information might play into the hands of the paparazzi," he said.

Professor Anton Harber, who directs the journalism and media studies programme at the University of Witwatersrand, said he was overseas and so had not been able to measure the current coverage.

However, he advocated "at least twice-daily updates, even if they were "one-liners". More often if there were developments, good or bad.

This was apart from more substantial and reassuring "face-to-face" communication, he said.

Meanwhile, Maharaj told the BBC on Monday they wanted to avoid Mandela's health being treated like "a movement of share prices on the stockmarket", and wanted his family to be with him without having to answer questions.

He said the media had generally responded well.

SA National Editors' Forum chairperson Mondli Makanya said: "I think the presidency was much more forthcoming in giving the public as much information as possible.

"It is sensitive. It is the health of a human being, he has family. I understand that he can only go so far. I think a long road has been travelled," said Makanya, comparing the blackout and the current approach.

"Mac Maharaj has been generally available and has kept [providing] updates."

The media had also shown a greater deal of sensitivity.

"Somewhere a medium is being found. It is a tricky one. It is Nelson Mandela, everybody wants to know... the world is genuinely concerned."

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