9 May 2017

Uganda: Costly Lesson for Tabloid That Picked On a Chief Justice

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Not a good idea to defame a Chief Justice, even one that has retired.

And when the Chief Justice in question headed the judiciary in Uganda under Idi Amin - and survived - it is a particularly bad plan. For this is obviously a man who knows how to look after himself.

No stranger to controversy or standing up for what he believes is right, Samuel William Wako Wambuzi served three separate terms as Chief Justice under three different Ugandan leaders. Against that background he is hardly likely to be cowed by a local tabloid.

But media outfit Red Pepper did the unthinkable and in October 2015 ran a cover story headlined: 'Exposed! 100 most indebted personalities revealed'. In the course of the story, which it called 'investigative', Red Pepper said it would run, week by week, information about 100 'highly respected personalities' who were 'having sleepless nights over debts, collapsing businesses and financial woes in general.'

The introduction to the 'investigative story' began: 'Many of you think top personalities/tycoons are in the comfortable zone, living a luxurious life. However, maintaining ... the status quo has pushed some of them to borrow from banks and other money lenders, a development that has seen some off them live in fear and misery over failure to pay back.'

Red Pepper is a tabloid much given to stories about 'personalities', and in February 2014 for example, ran a piece also headed, 'Exposed!' This time however the expose was of 'Uganda's 200 top homos', a story that followed almost immediately after that country's president, Museveni signed a law making 'repeat homosexuality' an offence for which the punishment was life in jail.

Red Pepper's story about Wambuzi told readers that he was the 'proprietor of the posh Namuwongo-based Greenhill schools' and included a photograph of him.

'Sources reveal that the brilliant learned fellow is struggling' with a bank loan of almost 10bn Uganda shillings (R37m)'. It continued, 'An insider intimated to us that the former judge secured a business loan to expand his Greenhill School ... and failed to service the loan like in the projected bank loan assessment program that is giving him sleepless nights. It is said that he is under pressure over the loan interest rates yet he had envisioned a peaceful retirement free from the court case pressures.'

It turned out that almost every element of the story was false, and that Red Pepper had not asked Wambuzi for his comment before running it.

Lawyers acting for the former Chief Justice demanded an apology, but what was printed hardly counted as such, and litigation began in December 2015.

Finally, on 4 May 2017, the High Court in Kampala delivered its findings: as Red Pepper conceded, the story was false; the allegations were in fact defamatory of Wambuzi; the apology could not 'by any measure' qualify as such; the 'apology' was followed by an unsuccessful plea of 'truth' by the publication; and the judge was entitled to general damages as well as 'exemplary damages', plus his costs.

How much should he be awarded? Red Pepper hardly won any more friends in the Wambuzi camp with its submissions on this question: should the court find that the publication was defamatory and award damages, the former Chief Justice should be entitled to 'nominal damages' only. Counsel argued that an amount of R18 000 would be appropriate as Wambuzi was 'retired and aged 85 years'. The former Chief Justice was 'no longer in-service and the publication is not likely to have any major impact on (his) life or cause him damage.'

But Wambuzi himself had a different view of the damage done to himself.

He said he was not the proprietor of the school. It had been founded by his late wife and at her death her interest passed to their children. He said he had no bank loan that he was unable to pay and nor did the school. True, the school had once taken a loan but it had been settled in full, some time before the Red Pepper story appeared.

He said he did not lead an extravagant life, but lived within his means and without borrowing to finance his lifestyle. He said the story suggested he was a hypocrite who pretended to do one thing while in fact he was doing something else. The sum of the picture painted by the article was that he was a dishonest person 'who borrows money to improve a school but instead uses the money to live a luxurious life, and worse still, fails to pay'.

He gave a brief summary of his background: work in government, three periods as Chief Justice, president of the Court of Appeal for East Africa until the collapse of the East African community, a member of the Court of Appeal in Kenya, and a judge of Uganda's own Court of Appeal before finally retiring, as mandated, when he turned 70 in 2001.

Wambuzi said he felt 'very strongly wronged and greatly damaged in his reputation' by the article.

Judge Patricia Basaza-Wasswa said she agreed. 'I am satisfied that in the mind and eyes of the reasonable reader/person, the same natural and ordinary meanings they assign to the false statements in the publication would be imputed. Particularly the absurd meaning that (Wambuzi) is of dishonest and pretentious character.'

She said Red Pepper 'no doubt disparaged (Wambuzi) in his highly esteemed reputation as three time Chief Justice of ... Uganda. It lowered him in the estimation of right-thinking members of society. The picture painted of him by far breached all tenets of professional ethics and conduct of a retired judicial officer of his stature.'

The judge said in reaching the sum of damages she particularly took into account Wambuzi's reputation; the 'gravity of the libel'; the wide circulation of the publication in Uganda; the highly sensational headline and the publication's failure to verify that the story was true or to ask Wambuzi for comment; the failure to apologise and the fact that Red Pepper 'have taken (him) through a full-blown suit' and the amounts awarded in earlier defamation cases.

The result was no mere 'nominal damages': R1.4m for general damages and a further R186 000 in 'exemplary damages', not to mention Wambuzi's legal costs.

Red Pepper's lawyers said at the weekend that they would appeal the decision but in the meantime, you have to wonder if they have learned anything at all about ethical journalism - like asking someone for comment when you are running a story about them?

Wambuzi has written an autobiography, 'The odyssey of a judicial career in precarious times' (2014) in which he reflects on his experiences including life under former Ugandan President, Idi Amin. Among these, he remembers the mysterious and permanent disappearance of the then Chief Justice, Benedicto Kiwanuka.

A review of Wambuzi's book by the Kampala Law Monthly magazine quotes him as saying, 'I cannot recollect any official communication as to the fate of Chief Justice Kiwanuka. But, word went round that he was pulled from his chambers in the high court around 8am by armed, plain clothed men, presumably handcuffed and bundled into a small car with a civilian registration number that drove away ... other rumours suggested Amin had Kiwanuka murdered.'

In another story, Wambuzi tells of meeting Amin in a swimming pool and pretending to the President that he did not know how to swim. The President gave him a brief lesson and then challenged him to a race. 'I made sure I did not win the race as it was evident by that time that anyone who 'upset' the President could be easily disposed of. I remembered what happened to my predecessor.'

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