Archive for May 2011
When even a primary school is threatening its critics with libel, you know it’s time for Libel Reform
LIBEL IN THE SCHOOLYARD
Richard Wilson asks: Why would a London primary school employ the services of a political lobbying firm — and libel lawyers Carter Ruck?
A South London primary school is funding a libel action brought by current and former employees over three emails sent by the Chief Auditor of Lambeth Council. The school has ignored a freedom of information request for details of how much it is spending on the court action — but Index on Censorship believes that the costs may already have run into six figures…
My latest piece in The New Humanist:
Two Decembers ago, an elderly widow called Zuwana Kampalira went on trial for practising witchcraft. The judge heard evidence that Kampalira had taken a young girl on a magic plane to the village where her grandfather lived. There she pressured the girl to kill her grandfather with a magic hammer. When the girl refused, Kampalira allegedly sought to persuade her to murder her father. The defendant initially denied these charges, but later changed her plea on the advice of the police. The court took a dim view, sentencing her to 30 months imprisonment with hard labour.
In a related case, 70-year-old Namalinda Josephy was charged with teaching witchcraft to a group of small children. The court learned that Josephy had the ability to transform herself by night into a black log or a big snake, and that she had done so in the presence of the children. Despite warnings from the police that she should admit the charges to get a more lenient sentence, Josephy denied the allegations. She was also sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In January this year, Tryson Jere, Mabvuto Jere and their wives Nyabanda and Nyachunga were accused of teaching 17 children witchcraft at night, and flying with them in a basket plane to South Africa and “within the local district to play football”. The group were charged with disorderly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, and are now awaiting trial.
These are just three of over 80 case-files compiled by the Association for Secular Humanism (ASH) in Malawi, where dozens of people have been jailed on imaginary evidence for the imaginary crime of “witchcraft”. Most are poor, elderly and from rural communities. ASH has campaigned successfully against efforts to recognise “witchcraft” as a crime. But some magistrates have been pursuing cases regardless, prosecuting people for an offence that isn’t even on the statute book. Others have been imprisoned for “pretending witchcraft”, or the catch-all crime of “disorderly conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace”. This despite the fact that Malawian law actually makes it a crime to accuse another person of being a witch.
From Re L (A Child: Media Reporting), The High Court of Justice:
187. Mr Booker’s articles contain significant factual errors and omissions. In the first article Mr Booker gives the impression that it was ‘faint bruising’ which prompted the parents to take L to hospital and which gave rise to what he clearly regards as the over-zealous and unjustified actions of social workers working for the same local authority so recently criticised by me in Re X, Y and Z (Children). As he will come to understand when he reads this judgment, it was in fact L’s floppy arm which prompted his parents to take him to hospital. That floppy arm was the result of a spiral fracture of his left humerus. X-rays showed that he also had six metaphyseal fractures. In his first article Mr Booker makes no mention of any of those fractures. It was those fractures which led to the safeguarding measures taken – and in my judgment appropriately taken – by this hospital and by this local authority.
188. In his second article Mr Booker asserts as fact that in this case ‘the council has depended, in its campaign to seize this baby, on the same controversial paediatrician about whom the judge was so excoriatory’. I am aware that there is currently an application pending before the President of the Family Division in which the President is being asked to decide whether the paediatrician in that case should be named. Judgment has been reserved. I shall refer to that doctor, as I did in Re X, Y and Z (Children), as Dr M. At no time has Dr M had any involvement at all in the case I am now concerned with. Indeed, to the best of my recollection his name has never even been suggested as a possible expert to be used in this case.
189. All of this underlines the dangers inherent in journalists relying on partisan and invariably tendentious reporting by family members and their supporters rather than being present in court to hear the evidence which the court itself hears…
193. …As Lord Hobhouse put it in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd  2 AC 127 at p. 238 ’No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation.’