The publishers of Mmegi and The Monitor weekly newspapers, Dikgang Publishing Company (DPC), have won an appeal against former deputy school head at Ramokgonami Junior Secondary School, Gakeolebale Mokobi.
She had sued the company for defamation. In 2015 Mokobi successfully sued DPC for articles published by The Monitor newspaper (formerly Mmegi Monitor) of November 17 and 24, 2014 that appeared on the newspaper’s print and online versions.
The two newspaper articles that Mokobi found offensive were published under headlines ‘DEPUTY SCHOOL HEAD ACCUSED OF SATANISM’ and ‘Alleged Satanism initiate detained’ following a debate on allegations of existence of Satanism at Ramokgonami Junior. Following the case, the Francistown High Court awarded her P300, 000 with interest plus costs as damages.
However, Court of Appeal (CoA) justices Jacobus Brand, Isaac Lesetedi and Louis Harms recently upheld DPC’s appeal with costs and set aside the High Court decision.
According to the three justices, the appellant succeeded in establishing the reasonableness of the publication of the two articles.
Before making its final decision, CoA cautioned the courts to be wary of setting the bar too low, lest journalists become lackadaisical in their establishment of the truth and sloppy in publication of unfiltered gossip and not be swayed by hard cases to set the bar of reasonableness too high lest the media become discouraged to publish by the chilling effects of defamation claims, thereby depriving the society one of its most valuable and treasured assets, which it has in the freedom of press.
“What the courts are therefore seeking to do is determining whether the publication of a defamatory statement was reasonable in a particular case is to perform a delicate balancing act between the protection of freedom of the press, or the one hand, and the protection of the reputation of the individual against an unrestrained abuse of that right by the media, on the other,” read the judgment.
According to the CoA justices, the impugned article of November 17, 2014, its primary focus was never on the respondent’s possible relationship with Satanism but on the fact that she had to be removed from school for her own safety and that parents at the school were extremely unhappy with her presence to the extent that they threatened to burn down the school.
“That senior school officials from the Department of Education were also present; that they showed serious concern about the situation and that they promised to take the respondent away from the school. From a public interest point of view, I would find it surprising if it were to be contended that the media should be precluded from publishing that these events had occurred at a public school,” argued the justices in their judgment.
Added to this, is the general public interest in the subject of Satanism amongst learners in schools, which the judges argued that it was reasonable for the part of the story to be published.
In the second article, which was about the detention of two families for their involvement in what was described as Satanism debate that occurred at Ramokgonami Junior, the judges found no unreasonableness in the publication of this article.
The CoA justices concluded that it was wrong for the High Court to hold it against the appellant’s journalists that they made no attempt to investigate and verify the truthfulness of the alleged involvement by the plaintiff in Satanism because the articles never suggested that the statements made by the parents and students were true, but presented that they were made at a meeting, which is true.