Two judgments have far-reaching consequences for the media

Two important legal judgments for the media were delivered yesterday. One serves as a warning to news media to tread carefully when reporting potentially defamatory statements made by others; the other represents a step forward and two steps back in the reporting of divorce proceedings.

In the first, the Supreme Court of Appeal awarded R100 000 each to Mosiuoa Lekota, now leader of Cope, and S’bu Ndebele, premier of KwaZulu-Natal, for defamation. The ruling was against City Press, which published allegations that the two had provided sensitive information to a police spy. The 2005 story, headlined “ANC top brass spied on one another – apartheid agent” reported allegations made in a book by former security policeman Riaan Labuschhagne.

The SCA rejected City Press’  defence that it was truthfully reporting defamatory statements made by Labuschange, and affirmed the principle that a person who repeats or republishes a defamatory statement is also liable for defamation. The court noted: “In the course of a radio interview about the article shortly after it appeared, (City Press editor Mathatha) Tsedu remarked to the interviewer that if the respondents ‘have problems with (what was said in the book) they could take the author of the book to court and not City Press‘. It is evident from the remark that he was under the impression that a newspaper may publish defamatory statements with impunity if they have been originated by someone else… (T)hat is not so. A newspaper that publishes a defamatory statement that has been made by another is as much the publisher of the defamation as the originator is. It will be no defence for the newspaper to say that what was published was merely repetition.” (Download the full judgment here.)

In another judgment, the Constitutional Court struck down a provision of the Divorce Act that prohibited news media from reporting any details about a divorce case, except the names of the parties. The provision was overly broad, and inconsistent with the Freedom of Expression clause in the Constitution, the court ruled. But it is, at most, a Phyrric victory for the media, because the court also ruled that the identity of children had to be protected. That, if effect, turns every divorce court into a censorship board, which may rule that the identities of parties involved in the divorce may not be revealed, argues constitutional law expert Marinus Wiechers in Beeld. See also Business Day. Download the full judgment here.

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One Response to Two judgments have far-reaching consequences for the media

  1. It’s quite astounding that a senior editor doesn’t understand the principle of secondary defamation or that indeed by republishing such defamatory statements to a wider audience damages can be awarded against the defendant which account for the increased scope for harm to a plaintiff’s fama. This is why I warn new media students to study print news stories before putting them online.

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