Victory for freedom of thought in Botswana

By Richard Lee | April 08th, 2014

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) welcomes the news that Methaetsile Leepile, after 13 years of fighting a civil defamation suit, has finally had the matter dismissed by the High Court of Botswana.

Leepile, a prominent media personality and former regional director of MISA, has been engaged in legal proceedings since 2002 as a result of civil defamation charges brought against him by senior High Court Judge Mpaphi Passevil Phumaphi. Phumaphi initiated the case after an article was published by The Voice newspaper in July 2001. The article referred to perceived nepotism, favouritism, and tribalism amongst the judiciary. The published article referred to a draft paper written by Leepile in 2000, which was leaked to the newspaper The Voice, whom according to Leepile published the paper without his consent.

The trial concluded in February 2013, but Leepile had to wait another 12 months before the judge delivered a verdict. Justice Singh Walia, who presided over the case in the High Court, dismissed the case with costs. In his judgment he statedthat the plaintiff could not prove that Leepile published the paper. Both MISA Regional Secretariat and MISA Botswana attended the trial in a show of support for Leepile, and along with the Media Defence Legal Assistance Initiative provided some assistance with his legal costs.

“I’m elated over the decision, very happy to have the burden over and to be able to move on with my life,” Leepile said. “I felt that the case was a vendetta against me, and have always insisted that the paper was my private property which was stolen from me and published without my authorisation.”

“I want to thank MISA (regional secretariat), who were the first to come out of the block and support me when the case really began in earnest. I also wanted to thank MISA Botswana and the Media Defence Legal Assistance Initiative for the funds they gave me to help me with my defence, which I’m very grateful for.”

If the judgment had gone against Leepile he would have faced grave financial consequences. In addition to having to largely self-fund his own legal expenses, if the judge had ruled in favour of the plaintiff, Leepile would have also faced damages in the amount of Pula850,000 (USD$104,500).

“MISA Botswana celebrates with Leepile this decision of the court,” MISA Botswana Director Buyani Zongwani said in a statement about the ruling. “It is indeed aprogressive ruling that took into [account] section 11(1) of the Constitution of Botswana [which provides that no person shall be restricted in their enjoyment of freedom of thought] … MISA views freedom of thought as vital for media as it provides protection for commentary on issues of public importance.”

Whilst MISA acknowledges that individuals have the right to protect their reputation through initiating civil defamation proceedings, it is increasingly concerned by the excessive amount of damages sought and awarded in such cases, as well as the high cost of legal fees in some countries in the region, which can inhibit the accused from mounting a proper defence in many cases. MISA believes that while a plaintiff has the right to an effective remedy through the courts, any compensation should only redress the harm caused and not result in a reward.

Despite the favourable ruling, MISA would yet again like to reiterate that excessive damages awarded in cases of civil defamation have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, and MISA would urge the Government of Botswana to initiate areview into both legal costs and damages awarded in civil matters.

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