Paper must pay MEC R150 000 for defamation

2008-03-18 00:00

City Press newspaper has been ordered to pay R150 000 in damages to KwaZulu-Natal Finance and Economic Development MEC Dr Zweli Mkhize, following a defamatory statement published by the newspaper last year.

City Press has also been ordered to pay all legal costs, and to publish an apology to the MEC that is "at least as prominent as the original article".

Mkhize’s attorney, John Wills, speaking on behalf of himself and Mkhize’s advocate Angus Stewart, SC, welcomed the ruling by Judge Jan Hugo, handed down in the Pietermaritzburg High Court yesterday.

Wills said Mkhize’s legal team are happy with the outcome, especially in light of the fact that City Press was given the opportunity a year ago to apologise to Mkhize and refused to do so.

Judge Hugo said Mkhize is a well-known political leader with an "impeccable reputation", the publication of the defamatory statement was fairly wide and there was an "obdurate refusal by City Press to acknowledge the fact that it defamed [Mkhize], and to apologise for such defamation until it tendered an apology that was too little and too late".

Judge Hugo added, however, that he could not find that the publication was malicious, and said the article as a whole could not be seen as an attack on Mkhize.

Guided by decisions in other cases involving defamation, the judge said he believes that an award of R150 000 is adequate.

The judge also granted what is viewed in legal circles as a punitive cost order against the paper, ruling that the fact that City Press "persisted in its denial of responsibility" entitled Mkhize to a cost award on an attorney and client scale.

Legal sources told The Witness that this amounts to a punitive order and means Mkhize is entitled to recover every cent of his legal costs from the newspaper.

Judge Hugo said he has no doubt that if City Press had "seen the light" at a much earlier stage and tendered an apology (which it did only a month before the case came to trial), the litigation might not have proceeded.

The case arises from the publication by City Press on March 4, 2007 of allegations that initially surfaced in 2000 at the trial of six men charged with the assassination of expelled ANC Richmond leader Sifiso Nkabinde, in which self-confessed co-conspirator Bruce Mhlongo testified that the killers were offered R200 000 for the murder by Mkhize (then MEC for Health in the province).

Mhlongo admitted under cross-examination that he had never spoken to Mkhize directly about the matter and that the allegation was hearsay and may have been designed to encourage the murderers to carry out the job.

The report by City Press, which concerned an alleged assassination plot against Mkhize, referred to the allegations, but did not say they were hearsay.

Mkhize welcomed the judgment, which he said vindicates the merits of his application.

"Firstly, it brings to a close the drawn-out issue of negative, speculative and subjective reports being unfairly published in the print media, which have had the effect of questioning my character and integrity."

Mkhize said it also "begins to define the limits of freedom of expression, where there was adequate space for criticism, but where the individual rights of citizens need to be protected".

"I wish to place on record that I never intended to go as far as taking this matter to court and certainly money wasn’t the motivation for doing so."

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