Friends of JZ case to set a precedent
Arms deal bidder-turned-whistle-blower Richard Young was a key state witness in the successful 2005 fraud and corruption prosecution of President Jacob Zuma’s former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik.
He is suing the trust for R1-million over posts on its website between 2006 and 2008 that described him, among other things, as “a crook” and a “darling of the Broederbond”. An August 1 pretrial date has been set in the Western Cape High Court.
The legal wrangle could set a pre-cedent on the legal liability of website publishers for anonymous postings.
The trust’s lawyer, Barnabas Xulu, revealed this week that the manager of the website was Ranjeni Munusamy, controversial former journalist and ex-spokesperson for Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. Munusamy had offered her services to the website on a voluntary basis, Xulu said.
Freedom of expression
Xulu said that, as she was not employed by the trust, it was unclear how she could “bind the trust to the website”. The trust would also defend the matter based on the principle of freedom of expression.
Munusamy confirmed she had been the webmaster of the site, but that since 2008 “it has been closed”.
“The trust has not been in contact me since 2008 and I don’t know anything about this [defamation suit],” she said.
Young owns the South African-based company CCII Systems (C2I2), which lost a bid for the provision of combat suites in the corvettes contract that formed part of the multibillion-rand arms deal.
He alleged that his bid had been fraudulently misrepresented to justify awarding the contract to the French-owned African Defence Systems, in which Shaik held a 10% stake through Nkobi Holdings. After suing the government for damages, he was awarded a R15-million settlement.
Following the Shaik trial, Young took court action in 2008, alleging that the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust, chaired by Black Management Forum founder Don Mkhwanazi, had posted material on its website that defamed him and his company.
The postings, made under pseudonyms such as “Forward”, “Jewboy” and “Independent Observer”, declare that:
Young is linked to the Broederbond and is part of a group aiming to overthrow the ANC government;
He is a crook who paid for his farm with taxpayers’ money;
He fabricated his evidence against Shaik;
His electronics PhD from Wits University was fraudulently obtained, and he had falsely asserted that Schabir’s brother, Chippy Shaik, had obtained a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of KwaZulu-Natal by plagiarising research. The university stripped Chippy of his degree in 2008; and
He admitted to supplying the South African National Defence Force with faulty software for anti-aircraft weaponry, which malfunctioned and killed nine soldiers in October 2007 in an incident known as the “Lohatla tragedy”. An official defence report pointed to a mechanical rather than a software failure.
This week, Young said that “the cost of the litigation is minor compared with the reputation of my company, which does business in the United States, among other countries. The US is generally suspicious of people operating in the Third World, so it is imperative that I defend my and my company’s credibility.”
He rejected all the allegations against him, saying that freedom of expression did not protect people against “diabolical, gratuitous lying”.
In 2003, the Cape High Court awarded Young damages of R125000 after he sued Yunis Shaik for defamation. Yunis is the brother of Schabir and Chippy, the latter having been the chief of armaments procurement for the defence department during the arms deal.
Sleaze and slander
On e.tv, Yunis Shaik called Young a liar who had embarked on a “campaign of sleaze and slander” to discredit the Shaik family. He apologised in court, but Judge Hennie Nel found that the “freedom of expression does not include the right to falsely attack the integrity of a fellow citizen for selfish reasons or for reasons which having nothing to do with ‘public benefit’”.
Media lawyer Greg Palmer said that, if the court found in Young’s favour, it could have wide-ranging implications for news websites.
Palmer said there were no legal precedents on the issue in South Africa. However, if a publisher of online content was found liable for anonymous postings on its website, it could undermine the neutrality of the internet and have a negative impact on freedom of expression.
He said a similar matter, between Independent Online and Technology Corporation Management, was likely to be heard in the South Gauteng High Court in November. This could establish the “innocent dissemination defence”, which “would allow website publishers to distance themselves from comments made anonymously”.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.