McBride defamation judgment is a step backward for press freedom

March 2, 2010

Harvey Tyson, a former editor of The Star, memorably remarked that editing a newspaper during the dark days of the emergency legislation was like “walking blindfold through a minefield”. The job may be slightly easier these days, but the Supreme Court of Appeal’s judgment in Robert McBride’s defamation case against the Citizen illustrates that some of those landmines are still out there. News media had better tread carefully.

McBride, the former Ekurhuleni police chief, won R150 000 in damages, plus most of his legal costs, from the Citizen for calling him a murderer, a criminal and unfit to be appointed as police chief. The ruling sets off alarm bells for several reasons. For one, it is one of the largest-ever damages awards for defamation in South Africa, and together with legal costs would prove crippling to many a news organisation (if not for the Citizen). It is sure to have a chilling effect on future news reporting and commentary. Secondly, in rejecting the Citizen’s appeal against a High Court ruling, the SCA in effect ruled that it is defamatory to refer negatively to the past actions of someone who has been granted amnesty for those actions by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That could make it very difficult to report and comment on the activities of people who were involved in human rights abuses during apartheid, and received amnesty.

Read the rest of this entry »


Jurie Els is on the warpath

January 8, 2010

Fresh from his acquittal on charges of sexually molesting a minor, singer Jurie Els is taking aim at media. News24 reports that Els has “requested … police to investigate a charge of defamation against” singer Sonja Heroldt and the newspaper Sondag about remarks she allegedly made after his acquittal. And this is only the begining, Els warned: “I’m also going to drag several other people to court. I want to send a message that people should think before they speak.”

Of course, Els has every right to take legal action to protect his interests. But asking the police to investigate a “charge of defamation”? Defamation is first and foremost a delict, or unlawful act, which gives rise to civil liability. That means a person who has been defamed would seek satisfaction by sueing the defamer for damages. Although criminal defmation is recognised in South African law, prosecutions are exceedingly rare, with only two reported cases since 1953. Because criminal sanctions are much more drastic than an award of Read the rest of this entry »

Is Dan Roodt a racist? Judge for yourself.

August 7, 2009

Dan Roodt, the “Afrikaner freedom fighter” and master of hot air, is suing Die Burger for calling him a racist. Roodt wants R600 000 in damages for a letter and a column which, he argues, defamed him by implying that he regards himself as superior to other racial groups, and discriminates against people on the grounds of skin colour.

Personally, I think Die Burger was spot on, but have a look at Roodt’s blog and and other writings, and judge for yourself. A tip: he refers to President Barak Obama as “America’s half-blood prince” (borrowing from the pathetic American racist “journalist” Steve Sailer) and that apartheid benefitted blacks (by giving them free education!!).


Some evidence to inform your judgment (From the Freedom Fighter’s blog):

“…black failure and white success may be ascribed to a difference in attitude. But just like two individuals may differ in both attitude and ability, it is certainly admissable that races, too, may differ not only in attitude but also in ability. How much of the one can be explained by the other?  (…)  Blacks generally prefer parties and festivals because a lot of them lack the mental ability to excel at such demanding subjects as mathematics and natural science which require logical reasoning and cognitive ability.”

(See also my latest update on this issue.)

Two judgments have far-reaching consequences for the media

March 18, 2009

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.