24 February 2006

South Africa: Rath Withdraws Defamation Lawsuit Against Business Day, Other Media

Cape Town — Controversial vitamin salesman Matthias Rath has instructed his attorneys to withdraw lawsuits against several media organisations, including Business Day, and has undertaken to pay the legal costs involved.

Rath did not give a reason when he gave instructions to withdraw the cases, his lawyer, Brendan O'Dowd, said yesterday.

Rath spokesman Khaya Buthelezi also declined to explain Rath's actions, saying only that he would issue a statement later.

"Rath's decision to withdraw his defamation case vindicates our view that (our) stories were accurate, contained fair comment and their publication and broadcasting were in the public interest," Health-e News manager Kerry Cullinan said in a statement.

Rath launched a R1,6m defamation case against Health-e News and three of its reporters over articles published on its website last year detailing his foundation's campaign against AIDS drugs in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu.

They included accounts of two HIV-positive women who died soon after being persuaded to quit their antiretroviral medication and take vitamins instead, and reports on two HIV-positive women who admitted they were taking antiretroviral medicines despite having been presented by Rath to the media as examples of how vitamins alone could reverse the course of AIDS.

Rath has also been criticised heavily by the South African Medical Association, the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, AIDS activists and bodies, and several prominent African National Congress members.

He also last year launched defamation cases against organisations, including news agency Sapa, Business Day, News24 and Independent News & Media.

Rath also launched lawsuits against former education minister Kader Asmal, the Democratic Alliance (DA), DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard, top HIV/AIDS scientist Hoosain Coovadia and Dr Eric Goemare from Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF).

"We are pleased that this phenomenal waste of time has ended. This will allow us to refocus our energies on our main work, which is to help people with HIV/AIDS in Khayelitsha get access to safe and effective medicines," said the MSF's Goemaere.

Rath sued on the basis that Goemaere had defamed him by calling him a "liar" and a "killer".

Rath was not withdrawing his cases against Asmal, the DA and Kohler Barnard, said O'Dowd.

Kohler Barnard said Rath had not been in SA for the past six months, and she suspected Rath intended to shift his activities to another "unsuspecting" country.

Asmal did not return calls requesting comment.

"We hope that Rath withdrawing (his case) sends a message that the media has the right to play its role in society, reporting truthfully and correctly," said Naeem Jeenah, head of the anticensorship programme at the Freedom of Expression Institute.

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