9 February 2012

South Africa: Seeking Justice for HIV-Positive Journalist

Human rights and civil society groups will picket the Qatari news network, Al Jazeera, next week to call for the reinstatement of a South African journalist who was thrown out of Qatar after it was found that he has HIV.

The case of a South African journalist known only as MR as he wants his identity concealed at this stage has gained the support of the Geneva-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The ITUC has joined the chorus of voices calling for Al Jazeera to re-employ MR, who was dismissed and ordered to leave Qatar after one of the medical checks he had to undergo to get a work permit showed that he had HIV. MR was never informed of the nature of the medical tests he had to have done. The ITUC has written a letter to the emir of Qatar demanding the reinstatement of MR. In October 2010, MR had been employed as one of five senior editors by Al Jazeera, which is owned by the State of Qatar. MR's attorney, Nikki Stein, from Section 27, says at the time of his dismissal, he was due to be promoted to the position of managing editor.

"A new post of managing editor was being created and once it had been created he would be appointed to fill that post. He would then be supervising the other five senior editors within Al Jazeera and the duties of managing editor could be performed anywhere. We believe that one of the managing editors appointed subsequent to his dismissal has been performing his functions from London and, so, there is no reason that MR could not perform his duties from South Africa", according to Stein.

She adds that "MR was never informed why he was dismissed". It was only when he arrived back in South Africa that he discovered that his dismissal was because he has HIV.

Qatar is one five countries in the world, including Egypt, Iraq, Singapore and the Turkish Islands, that do not allow entry of any foreign nationals who have HIV.

"Al Jazeera, we believe, is relying on that in justifying the dismissal of MR. But, according to the principles of reasonable accommodation they could have accommodated this obstacle to his employment and allowed him to perform his duties from elsewhere", Stein says.

She says there is a massive gap in the protection and care of people living with HIV in Qatari law, which amounts to discrimination.

"Qatari law does not prevent discrimination on the basis of HIV status. Qatari law does not prevent dismissal on the basis of HIV status. There's no prohibition on forced medical testing, no safe-guards in place to ensure that you get the informed consent of patients who are being tested for HIV and there are no measures in place to ensure, for example, reasonable accommodation of people living with HIV, no continued care and support services for those people".

"The laws actually allow the Minister of the Interior to deport people who pose a threat to public health, which gives him an extremely wide discretion.

And they also allow the Minister, if deportation is not immediately possible to detain foreign nationals who pose a threat to public health for what seems to us to be an indefinite period", she explains.

This is in spite of the fact that Qatar has ratified the International Labour Organisation's Convention on Discrimination.

"It's an ILO Convention called the Discrimination Employment and Occupation Convention 111 of 1958, which prohibits discrimination on a number of listed grounds. Our argument is that those grounds should include HIV. There is a recommendation on the treatment of workers with HIV as well as a code of practice. The Discrimination Convention should include a prohibition on discrimination based on HIV status to safe-guard employees against discrimination on those grounds. Qatar has failed to comply with its international law obligations", says Stein.

Despite letters by the International Trade Union Confederation and Section 27 requesting the re-employment of MR, the emir of Qatar and Al Jazeera management have not responded. Next Tuesday Section 27 will picket the Al Jazeera offices in Johannesburg to register concern over the matter.

"Al Jazeera is wholly-owned by the Qatar Media Corporation, which is in turn wholly-owned by the State of Qatar. So, although it is not a State, it is a state-owned entity and, as such, the conduct of the officials within Al Jazeera is sanctioned by the State of Qatar. We will then hand over a memorandum to Al Jazeera setting out our demands for re-instatement and a formal recognition of the violation of our client's rights. We've got the full backing of COSATU and the ITUC. We've got the full backing of government and, particularly, the Department of Labour, and we will continue to exert pressure", Stein says.

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