On 11 July 2022, the Namibian Supreme Court ruled in favour of Namibian Media Holdings and one of its former editors, who succeeded in overturning a High Court ruling which ordered them to pay damages for defamation to a farmer and his company.
Namibian farmer, Johan Lombaard, brought a defamation case against the media house after an article claiming that he kept elephants in deplorable conditions was published in the Namibian Sun in 2017. In March 2020, the High Court ruled that even though the treatment of the elephants is a matter of public interest, the newspaper was unable to establish the truth of the statements published, and therefore could not establish the defences of truth, public interest, and fair comment.
The Supreme Court unanimously found that the journalist who wrote the article believed in the truth of the allegations contained in her report, as they had been confirmed by her sources, the Minister of Environment and Tourism and his then permanent secretary, who was quoted as having described the conditions in which the elephants were being kept at the farm as “horrific” and “deplorable”.
Writing for the unanimous Court, Judge Smuts said the journalist satisfied the test of a reasonable or responsible journalist by accurately reporting on the statements by the Minister and permanent secretary and that this defence should have succeeded in the High Court. Importantly Judge Smuts said that defamation defences previously available under the common law were inadequate to protect the right to freedom of expression and the media provided for under Article 21 of the Constitution.
This is an important judgement for freedom of expression and media freedom in Namibia. The country’s apex court has confirmed the development of the common law to give greater protection to the Namibian media so that, as the court put it, its “important democratic role of providing information to the public is not imperilled by the risk of defamation claims.”
The High Court’s judgment can be accessed here.
The Supreme Court’s judgement can be accessed here.
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