Christine Qunta, the SABC board member whose law firm is representing Matthias Rath, the German doctor involved in a R1,6 million defamation suit against Health-e, the Cape Town-based news service provider, has been accused of having a conflict of interest by independent media organisations.
Qunta is the deputy chairperson of the SABC board, which has endorsed and subscribes to the corporation's editorial policies on Aids, particularly the public's right to information.
"Given the role of the public broadcaster, and the corporation's commitment to editorial independence, it's inappropriate for her company to represent a man who seems intent on silencing journalists," said William Bird of the Randburg-based Media Monitoring Project.
Rath, whose foundation promotes vitamins as a cure for Aids, is suing Health-e News Service, two employees and a freelancer for R1,6-million following a series of stories written and broadcast about the activities of the Rath Foundation, primarily in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu.
Jane Duncan, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said the institute appreciated the fact that attorneys act on instruction from their clients, but some instructions are so unethical that attorneys who are committed to the spirit and letter of the constitution should not take them on.
Duncan said it was not possible to argue that Qunta's conduct as an attorney was a separate matter from her conduct as a board member, as her membership of the SABC was based on her professional conduct. Duncan added that, effectively, Qunta's company was under instruction to stop critical reporting of the Rath Foundation through the defamation action.
"Yet she has been selected for the SABC board on the basis of her professed commitment to freedom of expression. So in her one role she is defeating the commitments of her other role, which is inappropriate and needs to be addressed by the board urgently."
Brendan O'Dowd, the head of the litigation department at Qunta Inc, said he was dealing with the various defamation matters brought by Rath.
"There is no conflict as suggested by you. The constitutional right to freedom of expression does not entitle people to publish defamatory statements about individuals. To suggest, as you do, that attorneys who act for persons who have been defamed are opposed to freedom of expression is astounding," he said.
Eddie Funde, the chairperson of the SABC board, said: "We have absolutely no reason to question ability to perform her tasks as deputy . We see no reason to interfere in her professional role, therefore, we reject your suggestion that there is any conflict between these two roles."
Rath is also suing, in other cases, Kader Asmal, the former education minister; Dr Eric Goemaere, an official of Medicins sans Frontieres; editors and reporters from the Independent Group; and Professor Jerry Coovadia, the respected Aids expert.