Swapo editor’s libel claim under attackBy: WERNER MENGES
THE political arena is not a place for thin-skinned people who like dishing out sharp criticism but then cry foul when they receive a dose of their own medicine.
This was the thrust of an argument heard in the High Court in Windhoek yesterday in a case in which the editor of the Swapo Party publication Namibia Today, Asser Ntinda, is suing the Rally for Democracy and Progress and its leader, Hidipo Hamutenya, The Namibian and its editor, Tangeni Amupadhi, and another newspaper, Namibian Sun, for N$500 000.
Ntinda is claiming that Hamutenya made a defamatory statement about him, and that this was published in the two newspapers.
Judge Shafimana Ueitele yesterday heard arguments on an exception which the legal team representing The Namibian and Amupadhi raised in response to Ntinda’s claim.
They are asking that Ntinda’s claim be dismissed because, in their view, it does not disclose a cause of action, since the statements that he is complaining about cannot carry the meaning he is trying to attach to it, and in any event are not defamatory.
Ntinda sued Hamutenya and the other defendants for defamation after comments which Hamutenya had made in reaction to remarks earlier made in Namibia Today – in which an attempt was made to pin the blame for Namibia’s high unemployment rate on him – were reported in The Namibian and Namibian Sun.
In the report published in The Namibian, Ntinda’s reaction to Hamutenya’s remarks was also included. It was reported that in his reaction Ntinda lashed out at Hamutenya, calling him “a thug – just like anybody else who left Swapo”, while he also denied Hamutenya’s claim that he had actively participated in the establishment of the RDP.
In his defamation claim Ntinda is claiming that statements by Hamutenya that Ntinda had actively participated in the founding of the RDP, that he was suffering from the pain of a guilty conscience, and that he was trying to soothe or calm that pain by raising false and absurd issues in an attempt to get at Hamutenya, were defamatory.
Ntinda is claiming that Hamutenya’s remarks were understood by readers of the two newspapers to mean that Ntinda was dishonest because he is dishonourable and a traitor, he is a coward and without moral fibre, he is a person of ill repute, he lacks the necessary integrity and is undignified, and he is disloyal to Swapo.
Ntinda is also claiming that he was humiliated and degraded by the publication of Hamutenya’s remarks.
Due to Ntinda’s position as editor of Namibia Today he finds himself in the fray of political exchange, George Coleman, who is representing The Namibian and Amupadhi, argued yesterday.
“If you engage in political exchanges then you must take what comes to you,” Coleman said. “You cannot engage in that context with a thin skin.”
It is not a crime and it is not treason, and in fact it is a democratic right, to establish a new political party in a democratic system like Namibia’s, Coleman said.
If one looks at the remarks which Hamutenya made, in the context of Namibia’s Constitution, the last thing the ordinary reader would think of would be to say someone is a coward and a traitor if he had been involved in the creation of a new political party, Coleman argued.
“To attribute the most negative possible meaning to something that was said is simply not correct,” he said.
A newspaper should not be intimidated into not reporting what people involved in politics have said, he argued. “A newspaper should not be put in a position where it should be afraid of reporting on a squabble between two politicians.”
Early in his address to the court Gerson Narib, who is representing Ntinda, told Judge Ueitele: “When you read the article within its context, the word ‘hibernator’ comes to mind.”
Ntinda’s case is that he has not chosen to join any other political party, and that he has remained a loyal Swapo member, Narib said.
He argued that not only the words used by Hamutenya and reported in the newspapers, but also the context in which they appear, should be considered.
While there is nothing defamatory in choosing to join another political party, it would be defamatory to say that someone was a founding member of a party if that is not true, because that would imply that the person does not have the courage to stand up for his convictions, Narib argued.
Hamutenya’s claims as reported in the newspapers carried with them suggestions that Ntinda was dishonest, disloyal, and lacked moral fibre, Narib also argued.
He asked the judge to dismiss the exception with costs.
Judge Ueitele reserved his judgement after hearing the arguments. The judgement should be delivered before the end of April, he said.
Coleman was instructed by Saima Nambinga. Narib was instructed by Dirk Conradie.