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South Africa: Outrage over HIV-positive journalist's dismissal and deportation

February 20, 2012
Integrated Regional Information Networks - February 20, 2012

JOHANNESBURG, 20 February 2012 (PlusNews) - Allegedly tested for HIV without consent, found positive and subsequently dismissed, detained and deported, a South African journalist is attempting to take his case against Qatar to the International Labour Organization (ILO) to change the country's HIV travel and employment laws.

More than 100 protestors gathered on 14 Feb outside the Johannesburg offices of Qatari state-owned media company Al-Jazeera to protest the journalist's alleged dismissal due to his HIV-positive status.

The international news agency has denied allegations that the reporter was removed from his post due to his HIV status, but Section27, a South African human rights organization, has lobbied South Africa's delegation to the ILO to lodge a complaint against Qatar for its failure to abide by international labour conventions.

Qatar is a signatory to one of the ILO's eight fundamental conventions, the 1958 Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, which requires states to enact legislation prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, nationality, or religious or political beliefs.

The 1958 declaration does not address discrimination based on HIV status, but its preamble references the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which can be interpreted to include HIV, and Section27 attorney Nikki Stein is arguing that the two declarations should be read together.

Stein says the South African Ministry of Labour has agreed, but Section27 has not received a response to its request that South Africa lodge a complaint against Qatar at the ILO.

If South Africa successfully pursues a complaint, the ILO could issue recommendations to bring Qatar in line with international law, and could then try to ensure they were adopted. This could not only remove HIV travel and employment bans but set a precedent for action against other countries with similar bans that are also signatories to the 1958 convention.

Qatar is one of about five countries that deny visas to people living with HIV, and one of about 20 that can legally deport HIV-positive foreigners.

Other countries in the region - United Arab Emirate and Kuwait - which depend on migrant labour, all have laws allowing deportation of any HIV-positive foreigner, according to UNAIDS. The reporter says the experience has driven home the discrimination facing many HIV-positive immigrants in the Middle East.

"You see this sort of thing in movies and you react with disbelief; you see it happen to other people and it still seems unbelievable," the journalist, who has chosen to remain anonymous, told IRIN/PlusNews.

Chased off and out The reporter relocated to Qatar to take up employment with Al-Jazeera in October 2010. Two months later he was sent for medical tests to finalize his Qatari residence permit, which included an HIV test, but was not informed that he was being tested for the virus. The test results were delayed and he tested again at a clinic in Qatar's capital, Doha.

He alleges that when he returned to collect his results the staff chased him off the premises, and then at a meeting at Al-Jazeera's headquarters he was allegedly ordered into a car and without explanation driven to Doha Prison, where he was detained for several hours and given a public, full-body search before being released. He claims that an Al-Jazeera employee told him he had been dismissed and should leave the country within 48 hours to avoid arrest.

Al-Jazeera has denied that the reporter's HIV status was the basis for his dismissal. "Al Jazeera was not privy to his HIV status and at no point was it communicated to the company by either the authorities or by the candidate himself," the news network told IRIN/PlusNews [in an email]. "His HIV status therefore could not have been, and was not, a consideration for us." The news service has also maintained that although it is an equal opportunity employer, its offices must abide by local labour and immigration laws, and employment is conditional upon meeting the requirements for legally working and living in a country.

"Al Jazeera was informed that the candidate was denied a residence permit and work visa by the Qatari authorities," Al-Jazeera said in a statement. "Without a work visa a candidate may not pursue employment in the country and due to this, Al Jazeera was under the legal obligation to withdraw the conditional offer of employment which was made to the candidate, a risk which the candidate was made aware of and accepted prior to his acceptance of the offer." No legal recourse Susan Timberlake, a UNAIDS senior advisor for human rights and law, says people legally residing in a country should be offered the chance to contest deportation, but this is seldom granted to HIV-positive people in countries like Qatar.

"So many of the cases we hear about are handled in a very cruel and inhuman way. Summarily deported, they are not able to take their goods back, they don't get their last pay cheque, and if they have money in the bank, they lose it," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

"To make matters worse, the reason for their deportation is not kept confidential so... discrimination starts to follow them into their own country," said Timberlake, who added that HIV tests and informing patients of the results is often done without counselling. "It's one of the most devastating experiences people can go through." Stein's client called his deportation one of the most traumatic events in his life. "What Al-Jazeera did to me makes a mockery of their so-called commitment of fair treatment and giving a voice to the voiceless," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

When the law fails UNAIDS has been calling on countries to end HIV travel and employment bans for years, but countries continue to justify them on economic and public health grounds that Timberlake says are flawed.

International law offers recourse when national laws provide none, but she noted that labour-sending countries, like South Africa, may need to start difficult bilateral negotiations to end bans on their citizens.

"It's very hard because, from a political point of view, the countries that receive hundreds of thousands of migrants every year call the shots," she said. "The labour-sending countries don't want to challenge these types of practices because their citizens [and economic opportunities] will be affected."

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