Newspaper appeals McBride defamation ruling

A person’s criminal conduct remains a factor in determining suitability for becoming a police officer, despite having received amnesty, the Supreme Court of Appeal heard on Monday.

The court was hearing an appeal by the Citizen in its defamation case with former Ekurhuleni metro police chief Robert McBride.

The high court in Johannesburg earlier ordered the newspaper to pay McBride R200 000 for defamation.

The case relates to mainly editorial comment and opinion in a column published in September and October 2003. The articles queried McBride’s suitability for the position of metro police chief, and referred to a criminal record that had resulted from the apartheid-era bombing of a bar in which 69 people were injured and three killed. The articles also mentioned his having been detained for gun dealing in Mozambique, and that he had no experience or academic training as a traffic officer.

McBride submitted the allegations were defamatory because he was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the bombing, so his convictions had been erased.

The newspaper’s legal counsel, Shem Symon, argued McBride’s convictions for the bombing could not be “obliterated”.

“The actual events of the past cannot be undone.”

Referring to the articles, Symon argued it was not necessary to “illuminate facts” of McBride’s amnesty hearings, because many readers would have known that.

“You do not see the TRC aspects in the article or amnesty, but it is there.”

Symon submitted there was no malice in the comment and that it was a given that not all people were prepared to ignore the past.
On the proper construction of “facts in totality” there was no defamation.

McBride’s legal counsel, PW Makhambeny, submitted the newspaper had not taken time to apply its mind to the TRC Act and the fact that he returned a free man from the Mozambique incident.

“The McBride articles created the impression that: ‘Oh, he’s at it again’. The problem with the article lies in the fact that it was based on piece-meal information.”

Makhambeny said the TRC aimed to give people an opportunity to start afresh. He submitted the court should consider the “generous nature” of the TRC process and the fact that McBride had gone “through the amnesty mill” when deciding if a person in his position could still be referred to a murderer.

“He should not be referred to as a criminal,” Makhambeny said.

The newspaper’s aim had been to generate bad press so that McBride could not get the post of metro police chief.

“That is what this is about. They pushed the envelope, so that McBride could not get the job, too far. In total disregard to the TRC process.”

Judgement was reserved.—Sapa

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