THE Kenya High Court has delivered a judgment against Times News Service, owners of Kenya Times Newspapers that is likely to revive the debate on the validity of the country's defamation laws, writes Dennis Itumbi for journalism.co.za.
In the case, Kenya Times which published a story on misuse of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) based entirely on details handed out in a press conference by a respected Non-Governmental Organization was found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay Kenya Shillings 6 million to a former MP.
In a judgment issued by Lady Justice Murugi Mugo, the former legislator also will get reimbursed his entire costs for the suit.
The legislator had moved to court in 2007 saying he was aggrieved by an article published on the front page of the newspaper on March 17, 2007 claiming that he had misappropriated the CDF fund by turning his personal premises into a CDF office.
In the article titled How Fraud is bleeding CDF, the newspaper had alleged that in a report issued by the Centre for Law and Research International (CLARION) during a press brief, the MP had been found to have converted his building into a CDF office and was yet to be investigated on the claims.
The MP claimed that the article was false and malicious and was meant to paint him out to be a thief, corrupt and an embezzler of public funds.
He further told Justice Mugo that the article had led to his rejection by voters in the 2007 general elections as his competitors had used it to malign his name during the campaigns.
The MP was vexed by the fact that despite having given the Kenya Times an opportunity to publish an apology, the media house declined to do so by stating that they had not published the facts in the said article."
In its defense, the media house had called the writer of the article Mmbolo Mbulemi who had told the court that he had written the story based on a press statement from CLARION.
He said that the statement was based on a matter of national importance and averred he had no personal intention to malign the plaintiffs name.
The newspaper had told the court that if the plaintiff had been injured by the article, he ought to have provided information to counter what had been said to enable them to publish a counter story.
In her ruling, Justice Mugo noted that the media house ought to have first investigated the claims made by CLARION during the press briefing before publishing them.
She found that the mere fact that the publishers printed the story without looking into its background was a clear indication that they knew the allegations to be false and thereby, the defense of qualified privilege would not be available to them.
In this case, the plaintiff is entitled to both the general and punitive damages as he has requested before this court, the judge said.
Media observers were cautious in their response with the Journalist Association of Kenya (JAK) President Jacqueline Ooko saying, "we are studying the ruling and we will respond, but yes we will be raising crucial issues on what is defamation and whether the media should pay for errors by respected bodies, but lets first understand the case and the ruling."