EXPOSING AMBULANCE CHASERS, WEAK JUSTICE SYSTEM ON JOURNOS BIG DAY
May 3 every year is one day that says it all in the life of a journalist, World Press Freedom Day and this year’s theme touched on an ugly yet pertinent subject matter of keeping power in check while at the same time also keeping justice and the rule of law in check.
For our purposes the courts came to the spotlight at the Theatre Club Thursday night when the crucial issue was raised by the Media Editors Forum’s Mbongeni Mbingo: the point here is that impunity for crimes against journalists leads to self-censorship and makes an open society where the public can express itself freely really impossible.
This simply means journalists are often a times persecuted for reporting on matters of public interest without the courts even bothering to sift such cases and redirect them to the available avenues some of which are statutory, this being the Media Complaints Commission for one.
The Media Complaints Commission has a sitting judge who at inception was Justice Thomas Masuku now practicing in Namibia and a sitting secretary who doubles up as the ombudsman, Jabu Matsebula.
The rush to the courts by those who claim their persons have been injured by articles or pieces of information about them written or aired in the public interest has had a very strong effect in the media space in the Kingdom. Not only do journalists fear being persecuted for exercising the right of the public to know but also their employers are weary of having their balance sheets carry the contingent liabilities in the form of lawsuits that often attach ludicrous figures; some claims not even imaginable in a mafia movie.
Quite often these people who claim compensation for injured integrity hardly ever possess an atom of the said integrity and the courts do not have mechanisms to check before hearing these cases whether the person suing indeed deserves a E10 million claim or this is simply an attempt to discourage journalists from following up on an otherwise good story, that which is in the public interest. To the extreme journalists are often killed or assaulted and after all this they hardly have a recourse to any befitting justice.
Under the circumstance the real victim is the public through the services of a free press. Thereafter exists a public that is malnourished as a result of fake or non news and that is an ill-informed public, like ours under the circumstance. “This especially because every day of our lives, we are confronted with threats-of criminal defamation, that makes it impossible for the media to not censor itself. This problem is widespread.”
The judgements that worry the Editors’ Forum and the rest of free press also involve lawyers who by extension are part of the judicial system.
Lawyers have their own mechanisms that check complaints from the public such as the Law Society of Swaziland Tribunal and this goes with doctors in their medical council over and above their association. However the tendency of prosecuting or persecuting good journalism at the insistence of a mere complaint has attracted a barrage of lawsuits against journalists from the general public all in the hope of striking it rich especially because of awards generally given by our local courts. These courts have often not taken into cognisant the existence of the Media Complaints Commission and the other processes that are followed in the event of a complaint against journalists or the media.
“It is often said that there is no freedom of expression in this country, this blame perhaps is on the system of governance.
The bigger threat to the media is the justice system. A just, effective and independent judiciary serves as the cornerstone of all other democratic institutions by ensuring the rule of law.
As it is known, there is no liberty if the judiciary is not separated from the legislative and the executive.
To enable the media to function effectively, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the safety of journalists are rights which need to be fully protected by the courts as well as by the law enforcement actors.”
In a country where lawyers have a wholesale licence to police themselves or where doctors and quacks are hardly ever policed in terms of ethical practice the journalists becomes the first victim when covering stories about these sectors. This is also the view held by the Davis Law Group. This law group holds that many people have their own preconceived notions about personal injury lawyers and how they do business, and the reality of the situation is that there are plenty of unethical attorneys out there who give the profession as a whole a bad name.
Colloquially, attorneys and medical professionals who go to extreme lengths to advertise their services directly to individuals immediately after an accident are known as "ambulance chasers." These unethical professionals give a bad name to those who practice in good faith, and are a disservice to the general public because they try to pressure accident victims to pursue a lawsuit just to make a quick buck.
In the same vein unscrupulous attorneys study the newspapers microscopically in order to advise people of possibilities of claiming for libel or defamation all for the sake of them making their cut in the transaction.
Cases that have gone through the courts so far, according to MISA, paint a discouraging picture given the revenue base and overall economic situation of Eswatini. On July 26, 2017 Dr. Futhi Dlamini instituted a US$200 000 defamation lawsuit against the Swazi Observer.
He was awarded a reduced amount of US$20 000 by the High Court of Swaziland. On 11 November of the same year this publication lost a defamation lawsuit case brought to the High Court by South Africa-based gospel artist, Sipho Makhabane, for a story published on the weekend of 20-21 January 2007. Judge Mumcy Dlamini awarded him US$30 000 as compensation but the newspaper appealed the judgement.
Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation says “freedom of the press, like any other freedom, is never completely secure.
The development of a knowledge and information-based society via digital channels implies heightened vigilance, to ensure the essential criteria of transparency, free access and quality. Quality information requires working to check sources and selected pertinent subjects; it calls for ethics and an independent mind. It thus depends entirely on the work of journalists.
World Press Freedom Day is also an opportunity to highlight the crucial role played by this profession in defending and preserving the democratic rule of law.”
It is further disheartening that further down the line there were unconfirmed reports of media capture in the media space of Eswatini and this culminated in Martin Dlamini of the Times calling or a statutory body to regulate the media in the kingdom. He felt it would uproot corruption allegedly rife amongst the editors.
This was despite the existence of the MCC. However at the backdrop of this is that journalists would rather be unlegislated against.
The other available options are to make appendages to the contracts of editors to uphold the principle of press freedom which is the right of the public to know over and above their personal interest. Any deviation from this norm is equivalent to a criminal act of corruption if not breach of the contractual obligation.
Along this line the laws of the land should create an enabling environment for journalists through access to information laws than resorting to enacting more draconian laws and hostile statutory bodies that may be harnessed by powers that be and used against the very practice of a free press.