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Daily Maverick wins defamation case as court slaps guest contributor Modibe Modiba with R100,000 damages
Modibe Modiba ordered to remove comments and apologise for ‘patently false and defamatory allegations’.
An erstwhile guest columnist at Daily Maverick, who accused the media outlet of “racism” and of paying him, and other students, a weekly stipend to write articles critical of Independent News and its owner, Iqbal Survé, the EFF, and others, has been ordered to remove his defamatory comments and apologise.
Johannesburg high court Judge Keoagile Matojane said Modibe Modiba’s statements were defamatory and ordered him to pay Daily Maverick R100,000 in damages.
Daily Maverick sued Modiba for damages following his “series of false and defamatory” tweets and articles.
Despite being served with the summons, to which Modiba tweeted, “We’ll meet in court”, and then, “No place to hide as all they does is threaten and threaten but never act”, he did not file a notion of intention to defend the court action and did not attend court when the matter was argued.
Judge Matojane said it was clear that he had made a choice not to engage, and thus Daily Maverick was entitled to apply for default judgment against him.
Read the judgment, dated Monday 15 August 2022, here.
In its complaint, Daily Maverick said Modiba had first tweeted that he had decided to stop writing for it because “they only publish articles where you criticise black leaders/ANC or EFF. Once you start writing about anything else, which is seen as ‘anti white’, they have a problem”.
In another tweet he accused Daily Maverick of briefing him to write negative articles about Survé and former Public Investment Corporation CEO Dan Matijila, to “spy on the EFF” and to “create false stories”.
He said Daily Maverick was using bogus Twitter accounts and using students to “influence the narrative”.
Independent Online then posted an article quoting Modiba claiming that Daily Maverick recruited students and paid them to write and tweet negative stories in a smear campaign against prominent people viewed as proponents of transformation.
Daily Maverick editor, Branko Brkic, in his affidavit and in evidence, said he had published four of Modiba’s “unsolicited” articles during 2019. He had not been paid.
Others had been rejected because they were poorly written, lacked depth, were incoherent and, as “opinion pieces”, lacked real conclusion.
Modiba’s tweets, which began in January 2020, had reached more than 50,000 followers and were extensively retweeted and “liked”.
The IOL article was retweeted by, amongst others, EFF leader Julius Malema, with 3.6 million followers. The EFF then published a statement saying it was “not surprised that political hitmen Daily Maverick had been paying columnists to write negative articles against those they disagree with”.
Then IOL published another article, asking why the SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) was defending Daily Maverick.
The Information Communication Technology Union called Daily Maverick “a third force masquerading as a media house”.
Judge Matojane, in his ruling handed down on 12 August, said the statements were obviously defamatory.
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“It is hard to conceive of a more damaging accusation that is likely to injure the good esteem and harm the reputation of a news publication or a journalist.
“Based on the responses to [Modiba’s] tweets which were disseminated widely, and his elaboration on them in repeated interviews on IOL, the patently false and defamatory allegations were believed and taken seriously.”
Regarding the damages to be awarded, the Judge said Brkic’s position as founder and editor, required that he be seen as honest and ethical.
“He testified that Daily Maverick is an online daily newspaper that has around seven million readers and it also publishes a weekly newspaper. He testified that it was founded to defend truth and honesty and its reputation is everything.
“He testified about the hurt he experienced. He could not count the number of times he has been called a racist since the publication of the defamatory comments.”
The Judge said Brkic had testified that “the insinuation that Daily Maverick and its journalists are all racist is not only harmful but despicable …. that the harm caused was incalculable”.
Daily Maverick’s lawyers had reached out to Modibe prior to the court case in an attempt to settle the matter amicably, asking him to delete the defamatory statements and apologise, but he refused and escalated his attacks with taunting tweets.
While initially Daily Maverick was claiming R500,000 damages from Modiba, its lawyers, in supplementary papers filed with the court, indicated it no longer sought a “punitive or exemplary amount” but rather compensation which would vindicate Daily Maverick, in the eyes of the public.
Judge Matojane said R100,000 was an appropriate award of damages.
He declared the published statements to be defamatory and unlawful and directed Modiba to remove the statements from all platforms and to issue an unconditional retraction of them within 24 hours.
He also ordered that Modiba pay the costs of the application on a punitive scale because of his “obstinate attitude and recalcitrance”. DM
First published by GroundUp.
This article was amended on 17 August 2022: a previous version said the “South African Federation of Trade Unions called for Daily Maverick’s closure”. In fact, it was a SAFTU affiliate, the Information Communication Technology Union, that supported Modiba’s position.