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.