EX­POS­ING AM­BU­LANCE CHASERS, WEAK JUS­TICE SYS­TEM ON JOURNOS BIG DAY

Observer on Saturday - - Analysis & Opinion - WITH: Ackel Zwane Act­ing Ob­server on Satu­day Edi­tor

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.

In­trest

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.

Rights

“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.

Free­dom

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.

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