Newspaper wins libel case appeal (Namibia)


Werner Menges, The Namibian

Date Published

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A game dealer and farm owner from the Mariental area was not defamed by a newspaper article about the conditions in which captured elephants were kept at his farm about five years ago, the Supreme Court found in an appeal judgement on Friday.

The article about allegations of ill-treatment of captive elephants – published in the newspaper Namibian Sun in October 2017 – dealt with “a matter of compelling public interest”, appeal judge Dave Smuts states in the court’s judgement.

The newspaper’s journalist, Ellanie Smit, who wrote the article, was entitled to accept the correctness of statements which environment minister Pohamba Shifeta and the then top official in the environment ministry, Malan Lindeque, made at a public press conference about the conditions in which three young elephants were kept at game dealer Johan Lombaard’s farm, Smuts said.

There was no indication that Smit and the then editor of the newspaper, Festus Nakatana, had “a casual, slipshod or careless approach” to her report on the statements made at the press conference, Smuts said.

By accurately reporting those statements, the requirements for a reasonable or responsible journalist were met, he found.

Smuts upheld an appeal by Namibia Media Holdings, owner of Namibian Sun, and Nakatana against a High Court judgement in which it was found that the article had been defamatory of Lombaard and his close corporation Golden Game CC.

High Court judge Hannelie Prinsloo awarded N$70 000 to Lombaard and N$50 000 to Golden Game.

Smuts – with deputy chief justice Petrus Damaseb and appeal judge Elton Hoff concurring – set aside the High Court’s order and replaced it with an order dismissing Lombard and Golden Game’s claim with costs.

In the article about which Lombard and Golden Game sued Namibia Media Holdings and Nakatana, Shifeta and Lindeque were quoted as having described the conditions in which the elephants were being kept at Lombaard’s farm as “horrific” and “deplorable”.

The elephants, which had been captured at a game farm in the Grootfontein area, were kept in an enclosure made of shipping containers, according to Lombaard, while a boma to keep the animals in was being strengthened.

Lombaard claimed during the hearing of the case in the High Court that his reputation and business as a game dealer had been damaged by the article.

He said as a result of the report in the newspaper and on the internet he had lost a contract to sell elephants to a zoo in Dubai and also to supply animals to a game park in Libya.

In his judgement, Smuts said it was stated in the article that the elephants were “kept in containers” at Lombaard’s farm.

He said a photograph published in the newspaper did not show the elephants inside a container, “but rather in a very cramped and sparse enclosure surrounded by containers – a scene which depicts an enclosure which would be unacceptable for keeping elephants for the length of time they were kept (or for any length of time for that matter)”.

Smuts concluded that the article “satisfied the standard of reasonable or responsible reporting”, and that this defence raised by Namibia Media Holdings and Nakatana in the High Court should have succeeded.

The company and Nakatana were represented by legal counsel Natasha Bassingthwaighte, instructed by Norman Tjombe, in the appeal, which was heard in the Supreme Court last month.

Phillip Barnard, instructed by the law firm Behrens & Pfeiffer, represented Lombaard and Golden Game CC.