Is everything a journalist writes from court considered “privileged information” and therefore cannot be defamatory? If a journalist writes that Mr X has been charged for allegedly stealing Miss Y’s property, is it all fair and square; the journalist is not responsible for what people who have read the story or watched the broadcast think of Mr X?
These questions are pertinent in the face of a complaint by Mr Nandala Mafabi, MP for Budadiri West with regard to a story published in Monitor Online titled, “Nandala Mafabi cited in Shs1 billion land grabbing case” on June 16. He deemed it unfair to him.
Courts are one of the important areas journalists cover every day because the public has a right to know what is going on in terms of crime and justice. To be able to report what transpires in court (or even at police stations) without the risk of being sued later by suspects/defendants for defamation should the accused be found innocent at the end of trial, the law provides for what is called “qualified privilege”.
The same qualified privilege applies to reporting what is said on the floor of Parliament. Thus if an MP slanders another on the floor and journalists carry the story, they are immune to prosecution for having distributed or propagated slanderous content.
However, qualified privilege is not a blanket authority for journalists to write about anything in court in any way they wish. It is subject to some restrictions, namely the sub judice rule, reporting must be fair, accurate, not be occasioned by malice, and it should be “contemporaneous” (meaning it must be reported in time).
Sub judice (a Latin phrase) means journalists must not write their stories in a manner that is likely to influence the judge or the public with regard to cases before court. Reporting must therefore stick to the facts as they are and with restraint as to what can be reported or not so as not to create bias.
As for fairness and accuracy, this is straight forward; the accusations and defence must all be carried in the same story, and the facts stated without bias and attributions must be as was argued in court. Not occasioned by malice means it should be driven by public interest, not for a reporter, editor or other party involved to score selfish points.
Contemporaneous means the story must be reported within a reasonable timeframe it has occurred and this is dependent on the type of media. It could range from a day to week (for dailies, radios, TVs and weeklies) or a month for monthly magazines. This mean when a journalist picks up a case that transpired in court three years ago and suddenly makes it news, they are not covered by qualified privilege unless the context and circumstances explain the need to run such a story.
Journalists, especially court reporters may benefit from reading The News Manual: A Professional Resource for Journalists and Media”, Chapter 64 titled “The Rules of Court Reporting”. It is available online.
So was Mr Mafabi right to complain about the way the said story was published?
Well, the story as published only carried the accusations against Mr Mafabi by his two accusers – Mr Stephen Wobweni and Ms Annet Naturinda, who are husband and wife. The two claim Mafabi fraudulently transferred their land (without wife’s consent) into his name after Wobweni took a “friendly loan” of Shs150 million from him and staked their land title as security. They claim they couldn’t have borrowed money from Mr Mafabi since he did not have a lender’s licence.
Had the story been fair and balanced, it would have carried Mr Mafabi’s defence in court, or his version of the facts - namely that Wobweni sold him the house at Shs150m, what terms are contained in the agreement signed between the two parties, was the money returned or not? What remedies were agreed to in case of default? What was the content of the discussions alluded to between the parties in the intervening period?
The story could also have indicated whether the husband informed the wife that he was borrowing money and staking their land title as security. Did she agree to it or not?
Accuracy, fairness and impartiality are universal tenets of journalism reflected in the code of ethics as well as in individual editorial policies of respectable media houses. NMG editorial policies are very clear on this. All stories must meet this, including stories that carry “qualified privilege”.
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