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29.07.2005 Crime & Punishment

Democrat Fined ¢400m for Defamation

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The Accra Fast Track High Court yesterday slammed ¢400 million damages and ¢10 million costs against the National Democrat in a defamation suit filed against the newspaper by the Defence Minister, Dr Kwame Addo-Kufuor.

In its judgement, the court held that the National Democrat newspaper was published by faceless publishers because D.D.D. Publications, its publisher, only existed in name and had no registered offices anywhere in the country, contrary to the law.

"The records before the court indicate that the National Democrat newspaper is printed in a mobile fashion from one private house to another to avoid any detection of its real source of publication," the court said in its judgement of the suit filed by Dr Addo-Kufuor against the publisher of the newspaper and Ebenezer Josiah, a former editor, for defamation.

An order for a perpetual injunction to restrain the defendants and their agents from printing and publishing any further libellous material against the plaintiff was, however, dismissed because, according to the court, it should not assume a responsibility in what journalists or the press was supposed to publish.

"Our duty arises only after the publication has been made and we are called upon to determine whether it is defamatory or not. Our duty does not extend to any unknown future publication," the court said.

Dr Addo-Kufuor sued the defendants for a story written about him in the October 4-6, 2004, edition of the National Democrat.

The picture of the plaintiff was also printed and placed beside the story with the following question posed under it: "Hon. Addo-Kufuor - Will he tell the truth?" and which, according to the plaintiff, portrayed him as a murderer who was involved in the serial killing of women between 1999 and 2000, a crime for which Charles Quansah was arrested, tried and convicted as one of the perpetrators.

The plaintiff issued a statement vehemently denying the allegations contained in the story but the defendants refused to withdraw the story and failed to apologise to him.

Instead, the newspaper continued to publish more articles, with accompanying pictures, against the plaintiff.

The court held that Josiah, on November 11, 2004, purported to enter a conditional appearance for himself and on behalf of the publishers but it was deemed to have entered for himself.

Following that, the court applied to have the publisher served by substituted service but all attempts to trace the publisher proved futile.

Josiah told the court that he had no defence to the action since he could not prove nor justify the allegations contained in the story.

Consequently, the plaintiff filed an application for interlocutory judgement against the defendants in default of defence of appearance, and on the day of judgement, Josiah sought leave of the court to adjourn to enable him to consult a lawyer to assist him to file a defence.

That, he said, was because his employers had a lawyer but since he came out on his own to retract the story and apologise to Dr Addo-Kufuor, he believed the lawyers would not be interested in defending him in the case.

On the basis of Josiah's confession and admission that he could not defend the action because the publication had no basis and was unjustified, the court, on January 19, 2005, entered judgement against the defendants in plaintiff's favour for libel and adjourned the case for the assessment of damages.

The court said from what Josiah told it, at the time they published the story accusing the plaintiff of being involved in the serial killing of women, they knew very well that they were neither publishing the truth nor informing the public about the truth of the murders.

Rather, it held that they were peddling calculated lies and falsehood in their newspaper, with the sole aim of destroying or damaging the enviable reputation of the plaintiff.

"Is it proper and legal for a faceless person or group of persons to hide behind a non-existent statutory body like D.D.D. Publications to produce a newspaper in which a malicious campaign of vilification and untruth calculated only to destroy is relentlessly carried out, distributed and magnified through the Internet and FM radio stations to the world?," the court asked.

The court held that while no person or group of persons was to be restrained from operating a mass media and publishing what he /it thought was right or in the interest of the general public, that freedom was subject to limitations, which included the rights and freedoms of others.

It said despite the fact that the plaintiff was accused of homicide, not even of one person but several women, which was a very serious offence punishable by death if found guilty, the defendants did not do anything to show that they had regretted their action.

"They rather made matters worse when they continued to publish more defamatory material against the plaintiff in several subsequent editions of their newspaper, which, the plaintiff tendered in evidence during the trial," the court stated.

According to the court, those subsequent publications and the fact that the defendants knew the allegations of murder levelled against the plaintiff were baseless and without any foundation exposed the actual malice that the defendants harboured against him at the time of the publications.

The court said damages awarded in defamatory actions were intended to compensate or enrich the defamed or the plaintiffs concerned for the injury to their reputation and to cool the hurt feelings and also to make defendants feel the pinch of their wrongful conduct.

"While I regard myself as a champion and advocate of free speech and freedom of the press and, therefore, would always protect the press or the mass media in general against oppression of any kind, I seriously abhor irresponsible journalism, which has been the catalyst of most civil wars that we experience on our continent these days," said Mr. Justice Yaw Appau, who presided.

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