A small group of activists picketed outside the Johannesburg offices of the Qatari news network, Al Jazeera, this week to demand the reinstatement of a South African journalist who was dismissed solely because of his HIV-positive status.
About 100 activists chanted and sang outside the offices of Al Jazeera, in Johannesburg. They were a small group, but they represented powerful civil society organisations - two of the country's powerful trade unions, COSATU and FEDUSA, campaign group Treatment Action Campaign and social rights movement, Section 27. Their message was also very clear, as articulated through a loud-hailer by the Treatment Action Campaign's Nokhwezi Hoboyi in a memorandum delivered to Al Jazeera's Johannesburg offices.
"We're demanding the following: That MR be employed in the position of managing editor with retroactive effect from the date of his dismissal; that MR be allowed to perform his duties as managing editor from South Africa for as long as Qatar continues to discriminate against people living with HIV; and that Al Jazeera provides a formal acknowledgement of the violations of MR's rights", Hobooyi said.
The memorandum listed a litany of violations of the rights of the journalist only known as MR to protect his identity.
"Discrimination by Al Jazeera against MR on the basis of his HIV status, subjecting MR to medical testing without his informed consent, failure to offer MR counseling and support services both before and after he was tested for HIV, failure to inform MR of his HIV results, failure to maintain the confidentiality of MR's HIV status, failure to consider or implement measures of reasonable accommodation to avoid the dismissal of MR, and co-operation with the State of Qatar in effecting MR's detention and deportation from Qatar, including the invasion of MR's dignity and privacy", Hoboyi read from the memorandum.
MR is a South African journalist who was dismissed from Al Jazeera, detained in Doha State Prison and then deported from Qatar back to South Africa in January last year solely because he tested positive for HIV infection after under-going forced medical tests. At the time of his dismissal he was employed as a senior editor and was due to be promoted to managing editor, a position that allowed him to be stationed outside of Qatar. Accepting the memorandum on behalf of Al Jazeera, was the head of the news network's Johannesburg bureau, Mr Fakude, who described the protest as 'misplaced'.
"We believe that this protest is misplaced", said Fakude. "We have absolutely nothing to do with the migration laws of Qatar. The said gentleman who was employed by us... we actually didn't even know that he was deported until he phoned us from South Africa. So, this had absolutely nothing to do with us. We are facing the same challenges with other employers in Qatar where people are deported for whatever reasons and we can't influence the migration laws of Qatar. It was simply impossible on our side. There is nothing else we can say", he continued.
"I will take his petition that you given me and I will certainly pass it forward to my principals in Doha", Fakude added.
But his response drew fierce opposition from the small crowd of activists.
"Re-instate MR! Re-instate MR! Re-instate MR", they shouted.
Section 27's head of litigation services, Adila Hassim, challenged Fakude's assertion that there is noting that Al Jazeera can do in the case of MR.
"We appreciate the position the position that you're in... But what we would like you to do is carry the candle and take the candle back to the government of Qatar and protest against the unfair practices of the State against people living with HIV. There are things that can be done and I think that Al Jazeera, South Africa, is well-placed to be able to lead holding that candle high. And we will settle for, in the immediate term, no less than the re-instatement of MR", Hassim said.
Head of Section 27, Mark Heywood, said the demonstration was just the beginning of a concerted campaign to demand the re-instatement of MR. South Africa is likely to launch a diplomatic complaint with Qatar.
"We have strong support in South Africa for this campaign. The support is not only the support of civil society organisations and trade unions. We have met with our government to discuss the conduct of the Qatari government in imprisoning and deporting our client. We have asked them to raise a diplomatic complaint with the Qatari government and they have committed to us that because they defend and stand by our Constitution and the equality of all people in South Africa that they will raise this with the government of Qatar; and we say to our government: 'Don't back down because it's a rich government and you need their money. Stand up for human rights!," said Heywood.