JOHANNESBURG, Oct 14 (Reuters) South Africa's Sunday Times said today its editor and deputy managing editor may be arrested this week on charges of illegally possessing the health minister's medical records.
Editor Mondli Makhanya and deputy managing editor Jocelyn Maker are expected to appear before a magistrate in Cape Town to face charges of theft and contravention of Section 17 of the National Health Act, the paper said.
The Act states it is an offence to gain access to a person's confidential records. The Sunday Times quoted Cape Town lawyer Steve Broekman, representing the two, as saying they would be taken to court before the end of the week.
The paper did not say where the lawyer had got the information and police were not immediately available for comment.
Health Minister Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang, dubbed ''Dr Beetroot'' by opponents for advocating garlic and beetroot to fight AIDS, had a liver transplant in March as a result of a long-running battle with hepatitis, her doctor said at the time.
The newspaper said on Aug 12 Tshabalala-Msimang had dispatched staff to buy alcohol, thrown tantrums, abused nurses and washed down medication with wine and whisky during two stays at a Cape Town private clinic in 2005.
It also said she had used her position to secure a new liver while hiding her alcoholism from the public and had been convicted of stealing a watch from a patient while superintendent of a Botswana hospital in 1976.
A Health Ministry statement said the allegations were ''false, speculative and bizarre''. President Thabo Mbeki has shrugged off opposition calls to fire the minister.
Two days after the story was published the clinic discovered Tshabalala-Msimang's records had disappeared from its archives.
The newspaper admitted having copies but denied stealing them. The copies were handed back to the clinic on the orders of a judge, it said.
The South African National Editor's Forum (SANEF) expressed outrage at the possible arrest of Makhanya.
''I can't recall anybody ever being charged of this before, and it indicates the anger government is showing to the Sunday Times,'' SANEF head of media committee Raymond Louw told SAFM radio.
The opposition said it would put questions in parliament.
''It is an extraordinary irony that, 13 years into our democracy, the same governing party who fought for freedom of expression, is now seen to be increasingly clamping down on those precise freedoms,'' Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said in a statement.
Government spokesman Themba Maseko declined to comment when phoned by Reuters. But an ANC member of parliament told SAFM Makhanya should face the consequences if he broke the law.
''This kind of development is most unfortunate, but ... it is alleged that he transgressed the law, and therefore he is being brought to book,'' Roy Padayachee told the radio station.
''We want the media to stick close to the truth and we welcome a diversity of views. But the media has taken on a role of being an opposition to the ANC and the government.'' REUTERS PD RN1754