27 November 2012

Namibia: Prisons Officer Wins Defamation Case

NAMIBIAN Correctional Service Deputy Commissioner General Tuhafeni Hangula yesterday won his defamation case against a weekly publication and its editor in connection with a story in which it was claimed that he had helped a fraud suspect flee from Namibia while free on bail.

Trustco Newspapers (Pty) Ltd, which publishes the weekly Informanté, and the editor of the publication, Nghidipo Nangolo, must pay Hangula N$50 000, as well as 20 percent interest a year on that amount from the date of the judgement that was given against them, Judge Dave Smuts ordered at the end of his judgement on a N$500 000 defamation claim which Hangula pursued against the two defendants.

Judge Smuts also ordered Trustco Newspapers and Nangolo to pay Hangula’s legal costs in the matter.

The story which caused Hangula to sue Informanté and Nangolo was an unlikely one, based on claims made by a source who proved to be unreliable and unimpressive as a witness when he testified during the hearing of the defamation case in October, Judge Smuts indicated in his judgement.

He found that the defendants “have fallen dismally short” in establishing the truth of the allegations in the story.

Hangula sued Trustco Newspapers and Nangolo for N$500 000 in connection with an article published in the December 1 to 7 2011 edition of Informanté.

The article was based on claims made by a Nigerian self-admitted drug dealer, Anselem Chikezie, who alleged that Hangula had helped Sri Lankan national Amirthalingam Pugalnanthy, who was free on bail while awaiting his trial on more than 1 500 charges of fraud and forgery, break his bail conditions and leave Namibia. That was after Pugalnanthy had made a payment of N$150 000 to Hangula, Chikezie reportedly claimed.

The story, by reporter Edson Haufiku, was billed on the front page of Informanté with a banner headline reading “Prison Deputy helps bank-fraudster ESCAPE” (sic), with a photograph of Hangula in uniform also published on the front page.

The article itself, which was published on the third page, conveyed that it had been alleged by Chikezie that Hangula had helped Pugalnanthy get out of Namibia after he had been paid N$150 000.

A denial by Hangula, who said he had not received any bribe and had not helped make any arrangements for Pugalnanthy, was also included in the article.

Including that denial in the article did not cancel out the defamatory claims made in the rest of the story, Judge Smuts indicated.

He commented that it was clear from the evidence of Haufiku, who testified that he had interviewed Chikezie in prison on four occasions, that there was no attempt to obtain any objective verification of aspects of Chikezie’s version.

That version in itself was inherently improbable, and Haufiku and Nangolo should have approached it with more caution, the judge stated.

The mere fact that the Anti-Corruption Commission investigated Chikezie’s allegations did not in itself provide any corroboration of those claims, Judge Smuts said.

In his view, the failure to even attempt any enquiry about Chikezie’s claim that police officers had provided transport to Pugalnanthy in a Government vehicle when he left the country, together with the failure to wait for the outcome of the ACC investigation or at least some corroboration of the allegations in that enquiry, each flies in the face of sound journalistic practice, Judge Smuts remarked.

He stated: “The cumulative effect of these failures in the context of an inherently improbable story with potential internal contradictions in my view renders the publication of it as unreasonable, and plainly in conflict with responsible journalism.”

He also found that Chikezie, who repeated his allegations against Hangula when he testified in court, was “a singularly unreliable witness” and that it was clear from his evidence that he had little regard for the law.

Hangula was represented by Adolf Denk, instructed by Sisa Namandje & Company. Andrew Corbett, instructed by Engling, Stritter & Partners, represented the two defendants.

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