Even though the press and the rest of the media provides the means by which useful, and sometimes vital information about the daily affairs of the nation is conveyed to citizens it must not be confused with worthless gossip and may not serve any other purpose than to vilify the victim.
Advocate Philip Barnard said this the day before yesterday when he submitted his heads of argument in the defamation of character case against The Free Press of Namibia and others.
Barnard is representing former CEO of the Walvis Bay Municipality, Augustinus Katiti, who is suing the Free Press of Namibia, the company that owns the Namibian Newspaper, its former editor Gwen Lister, Coastal reporter Adam Hartman and Estate Agent Regina Kotchanova for N$300 000.
The suit stems from an article Hartman wrote in 2007 titled 'Katiti charged with theft' in which it is claimed that Kotchanova laid a charge of theft against Katiti.
Barnard in his arguments told Acting Judge Petrus Unengo that the headline and the first paragraph in the article conveyed the message that his client has been charged with a crime of theft.
He says at the very least the article contains a slur and suggestion that his client is considered to be guilty of theft and that he does not honour his contractual obligations.
According to Barnard the article raises serious doubts as to the honesty and reputation of his client in the mind of the reader. He said that the heading on the front page of the paper was boldly displayed and damning, conveying the fact that the plaintiff has been charged with theft meaning that the process of prosecution has commenced.
He emphasised the attention of the reader was caught by "the severe heading", which is borne out by the facts on the first page, while the details only emerge on the second page. Barnard asked the Court to find in favour of his client and to award damages in the amount of N$150 000 jointly and severally from the first three defendants and N$50 000 from the fourth defendant plus an unconditional apology prominently on at least the second page of the Namibian.
He also asked the Court to order that the defendants pay his client's legal costs. Advocate Andrew Corbett SC on behalf of the first three defendants argued that freedom of the press is essential in a democratic society and that it could not be required from the media to establish the truth of every alleged defamatory statement. He said that this will be an attainably threshold for reporters to adhere to.
According to Corbett, this will have a "chilling" effect and could lead to newspapers stopping to publish articles. He argued there must be a balancing act between freedom of press and the individual's right to privacy and that it is the duty of the courts to sensor reckless reporting.
Corbett said that since another daily broke the story first the damage was already done and that Katiti only instigated the proceedings against the Namibian because he felt targeted by the paper because of the series of articles that were written about him.
According to Corbett the article was reasonable, justified and in the interest of the public. Corbett said the amount claimed by Katiti is way out of line to current practices and requested that the claim against his clients be dismissed with costs.