Government's failure to sign off on protocol when reporting on former president Nelson Mandela's health was short sighted, the SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) said on Saturday.
“We put rules on the table that took detailed account of their input, and said we'd work with them in a very responsible manner,” Sanef chairman Mondli Makhanya said in a statement.
Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula's spokesman Sonwabo Mbananga and spokesman for the Presidency Mac Maharaj said they could not comment on the matter.
Mandela, 94, was flown to Pretoria from his home in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape. He has been hospitalised in a Pretoria facility since last weekend.
The presidency said he was suffering from the recurrence of a previous lung infection and was responding to treatment.
Mandela's hospital stay is his longest continuous period in hospital since 2001, when he underwent seven weeks of radiotherapy after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 83 at the time.
In a statement on Saturday, Sanef said top editors and media executives have been working closely with government on a confidential protocol for providing news about Mandela's health while protecting his privacy and that of his family.
This was captured in a document drawn up after Mandela's hospitalisation in February.
A media task team was formed on February 27, after a high level meeting between former Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and news editors.
This task team met with Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) to refine the confidential plan until a final document was presented to Sisulu in June when she verbally agreed to it.
It was agreed not to publish the entire document, but the self-imposed rules included that journalists were restricted to designated zones in the vicinity of the hospital.
It also included that no media would attempt to gain access to the medical facility without permission and acknowledgement from the media of security arrangements and restricted access.
Any breach of the code of conduct would result in the media house being expelled and denied access in the future in a commitment from the media to respect Mandela's dignity and privacy at all times.
Sanef said the document was forwarded to the defence ministry on June 5, for approval. However, government did not immediately sign-off on the agreement and Sisulu was moved to another portfolio.
Since then the media has been told by GCIS that the document still had to be reviewed by the current defence minister.
“By the time Mr. Mandela was hospitalised again this month the agreement had still not been signed off.”
Makhanya said there were no rules or restrictions that would punish unethical behaviour by a journalist or a particular news room.
“Government is creating the very environment it says it doesn't want.”
Various news organisations, including eNCA, Eyewitness News and the Mail & Guardian voiced their concern saying Mandela was a global figure and when he become ill the entire world was anxious.
CNN Africa bureau chief Kim Norgaard said even the international media was prepared to co-operate on this.
“Our audiences also have a keen interest in Mr. Mandela and have a profoundly deep respect for him.” - Sapa