WHATEVER Sam Nujoma does or says remains in the public interest despite his retirement as President.
This was the example Gwen Lister, the former editor of The Namibian, used yesterday to illustrate that public office bearers remain in the public's mind even if they cease to be in public office.
Lister was speaking in the High Court in Windhoek in the defamation case brought by former Walvis Bay chief executive officer, Augustinus Katiti, against Free Press of Namibia, the company that owns The Namibian, Lister, Swakopmund-based journalist Adam Hartman and Regina Kotchanova, an estate agent.
According to Lister, who testified that she has over 36 years' experience in journalism, a free environment and enabling legislation "is the best possible thing for any democracy".
Since its inception in 1985, The Namibian has striven to be the voice of the voiceless, she told Acting Judge Petrus Unengu. "During pre-independence, we spoke out for the oppressed. Post-independence, it continued its strong, independent stance to be a watchdog; to be the conscience of the people."
She added that it is "critical to newspapers' role to be the watchdog over excesses in the Government and the private sector to show the public what happens to resources".
Lister emphasised that The Namibian was "not a newspaper defined as a tabloid. It has always been a serious newspaper - committed to professionalism".
She said that the newspaper subscribes to the press ombudsman's code of ethics, "which in broad terms is concerned about the rights of the individual juxtaposed to the right of the public to know".
Lister further testified that The Namibian "is not a newspaper that sells on sensation".
She said that anyone in the public domain are those people with positions of authority and have a public profile - like former Walvis Bay CEO Katiti. They are subjected to more scrutiny, she said.
Lister said the decision on what prominence a newspaper article gets is a subjective call - mainly made by the news editor, a person second in command to the newspaper's editor.
Although journalists may suggest headlines for articles, it could be changed along the production line due to space constraints and page layout.
Katiti is suing the parties for a total of N$300 000. He claims that an article, which was about a theft charge which Kotchanova had laid against him with the Namibian Police in Windhoek, was defamatory.
According to Katiti, the article was understood by the reading public to mean that he was being criminally prosecuted, that he was allegedly a thief and criminal, someone who did not honour his contractual obligations, an amoral and untrustworthy person, and that he had illegally sold office equipment and furniture which belonged to a real estate franchise which he had bought from Kotchanova's husband in mid-2007.
The headline which is the bone of contention read: 'Katiti charged with theft'.
Lister stressed that there was no implication in the headline or the article that Katiti is guilty of theft. Equally, the article did not state that the Prosecutor General had decided that Katiti should be prosecuted. "The headline represented the body of the story. It was a fair, balanced report in this particular instance. I do not believe it was malicious at all."
The Namibian, Lister and Hartman are denying that the article was defamatory or that its publication was unlawful. They have pleaded that the facts reported in the article were essentially the truth, and that the publication was reasonable and in the public interest.
In the article, Kotchanova was quoted as saying that she had laid a theft charge against Katiti after he had allegedly failed to pay the full agreed price for the real estate franchise that he had bought from her husband. She also claimed he had sold off office equipment and furniture belonging to the estate agency before he had paid in full for the franchise.
Lister yesterday said that the newspaper could not have been busy with a witch-hunt against Katiti as she did not know him. "I saw him the first time the court proceedings started."
During cross-examination, Lister denied that Katiti's name was used in the headline to sell newspapers. "We don't think in those terms."
Hartman is expected to testify today.
The largest part of the article was devoted to a statement which Katiti's lawyer had issued on his behalf and in which Kotchanova's claims were dismissed.
After the police had investigated the charge laid by Kotchanova, the Prosecutor General decided not to prosecute Katiti, Acting Judge Unengu has been told.
The article which prompted Katiti to sue the newspaper was published about nine months after Katiti had received a controversial payout of N$2,78 million from the Walvis Bay Municipality on his resignation from his job at the local authority.
Phillip Barnard, for Katiti, said that Katiti was singled out for the payment while the municipality was not held accountable. "Well, he could have turned it down," Lister replied.
In the defamation claim Katiti is represented by Barnard, on instructions from Alwyn Harmse, from the law firm Fisher, Quarmby & Pfeifer. The Namibian, Lister and Hartman are represented by Andrew Corbett, on instructions from Michael Böttger of the firm LorentzAngula Inc.