A blogger has won a judgment against an African media magnate in what looks set to be a landmark case for so-called ‘libel tourism’.
Tanzanian businessman Reginald Mengi sued Sarah Hermitage over posts on her Silverdale Farm blog and two emails which he claimed were false and defamatory.
During the trial the Court heard evidence from Hermitage and her husband, Stewart Middleton, about how they were driven from Tanzania and forced to abandon the investment they had made in their farm, Silverdale, by “threats and corruption”.
Mengi’s younger brother, Benjamin, then took possession of the house, according to Hermitage’s lawyers Carter-Ruck.
The court heard how a major factor in the ordeal they suffered was the “hostile and defamatory coverage their case received” from the English language Guardian and the Swahili Nipashe. The titles are owned by Mengi’s IPP Publications.
In his evidence Mengi claimed he “was not responsible, not accountable and not answerable” for the editorial content of IPP publications.
In giving judgment, Mr Justice Bean ruled: “I find that the campaign in the Guardian and Nipashe facilitated Benjamin’s corruption of local officials and intimidation of the Middletons and thus helped Benjamin to destroy their investments and grab their properties; and that Mr [Reginald] Mengi, since he either encouraged or knowingly permitted the campaign, was in that sense complicit in Benjamin’s corruption and intimidation.
“The allegation is thus substantially true, and justified at common law.”
Hermitage said today: “I set up my Silverdale Farm blog in 2009 to document our horrific experience in Tanzania, and to expose as a warning for others the corruption we encountered and our helplessness with no protection from the local Courts and officials.
“As the Judge has found, my response to the campaign waged against us in IPP publications was reasonable, proportionate, relevant and without malice.
“ To find myself then sued for libel in my own country, facing a claim of legal costs of £300,000 from Mr Mengi before the proceedings had even started, was itself frightening and oppressive.
“I am relieved that, with the support of my legal team who were prepared to risk getting paid nothing at all under a 'no win, no fee' agreement, justice has in the end prevailed in this case.
"I also must thank the brave and honest Tanzanian journalists who either openly or privately assisted in the preparation of our defence.
I will continue to use my blog, my voice, to do all I can to fight against the corruption I have seen first hand in Tanzania, not least in the hope that it may in the end help the very good people, not least our loyal staff, who have stood by us throughout.”
After handing down judgment Mr Justice Bean ordered that Reginald Mengi should pay the defence costs at the higher “indemnity” rate.
In reaching this decision, the factors cited by the Judge included that Counsel for Sarah Hermitage had “rightly described the litigation as “oppressive”, that “enormous costs had been thrown at the case from the beginning, indeed before the issue of proceedings” and that the evidence of the claimant and his witnesses had in a number of respects been “misleading and untrue.”
Mr Justice Bean ordered that Mengi should pay £1.2million on account of Sarah Hermitage’s legal costs, which will be subject to “detailed assessment” by the court in due course.