Court orders unusually high damages for defamatory allegations made against Namibia’s First Lady
Abed-Nego Hishoono may be a teacher and an office bearer of the Namibian political party, Independent Patriots for Change, but he didn’t know one of the most basic lessons of using social media until it was too late.
He recorded himself making a series of false statements about Namibia’s First Lady, Monica Geingos, and, when litigation followed publication of his allegations, tried to justify his actions by saying he was merely republishing rumours that were already in the public domain.
High court judge, Orben Sibeya, listed the false and defamatory claims made in Hishoono’s contentious video-clip: that Geingos was secretly involved in the collapse of the national airline through her business interests in another aviation company; that she corruptly influenced decisions about the liquidation of Air Namibia to protect her interests; that she had been the girlfriend of an accused in a major graft case now playing itself out in the courts, had had a son by him and that this same man had arranged and procured her for marriage to Namibian President, Hage Geingob.
Geingos said these statements were false and defamatory and intended to injure her reputation and dignity. She said Hishoono had used his position of political power to legitimise and give credence to the false statements.
Outlining her objections to the video, Geingos, who is a lawyer, business woman and philanthropist, testified about her work in Namibia and internationally to uplift people from poverty and her business achievements and recognition.
She said that the video clip had shocked her and she denied that any of the allegations were true. They were aimed at injuring her reputation and violating her dignity and that of her family.
After she had issued summons against Hishoono, far from withdrawing his remarks, he had posted a further comment on Facebook: ‘Meet Hishoono, the first man ever to be sued by the first lady in Namibia, if not in the whole world.’
In another Facebook post, put up after summon was issued, he wrote, ‘She must just come, maybe she wants me.’
Geingos said that as a result of the claims made by Hishoono she was ‘abused' on social media platforms. In her view, this had been a politically motivated attack and the video was aimed at ‘delegitimising the President’ and at dehumanising her in the process.
If, as she claimed, she had developed a thick skin and had absorbed insults that came her way since becoming First Lady, why did she react so strongly to these claims? She said that it was to protect her children, who were necessarily involved in the claims he made. Moreover, she realised that when her husband stepped down as President, she might want to return to the private sector and this would be difficult if she let the video stand, unchallenged, since it had tarnished her reputation.
Hishoono said he made the video clip at the demise of Air Namibia when he wondered ‘where the nation was headed’. He posted the video on a WhatsApp group. When he later realised that the information was not accurate, he retracted the allegations and issued an apology that was circulated on social media. He also deleted the initial video.
He said that ‘news widely circulating’ was his source of the information that Geingos had a child fathered by James Hatuikulipi, an accused in a major corruption trial who, he said, was a friend of the President’s. This information was ‘national hearsay’. He also said that he regretted publishing the video without accurate information and he had therefore issued his apology.
Hishoono, who agreed that he was a ‘leader in his class at school’ and a leader, politically, through his party, said he had no independent knowledge of the correctness of the allegations he made in the video. It was ‘information’ that came from social media that he was 'simply repeating'.
The judge underlined the following two sentences in his decision: The defendant repeatedly stated that all what he said in the video was to repeat the rumours circulating in the country. He said he fell victim to rumour-mongering.’
Even the claim that Geingos ‘was a girlfriend’ to Matuikulipi and that the two had a child together, was an allegation based on the rumour he had heard, although he could not say the origin of the rumour.
Mishoono further conceded he had no concrete facts or information on which to base his allegations. Had he been careful he would not have made them.
Judge Sibeya found that indeed the material put out by Hishoono was defamatory and it could not be said to have been published in the public interest. Because Geingos had sustained damages from the ‘aggravated defamation’, she was entitled to an increased award, he said.
She had claimed N$350 000 but it was a ‘mammoth task’ for the court to quantify the damages she should be paid.
The allegations had the President as target but harmed not only Geingos, but also the children of the couple, particularly the son about whom the claims had been made. The statements about Geingos were ‘barbaric to say the least’ as well as being politically motivated.
Hishoono did not produce his apology from social media for the court to consider and Judge Sibeya did not accept Hishoono’s claim not to know that he could approach Geingos to apologise. This led the court to conclude that he had ‘no genuine intention to apologise’ for his actions and this aggravated the defamation.
For the apology expressed during the court proceedings, he found that Hishoono ‘deserves a little bit of mercy’ - but the weight of the apology had been minimal. As a leader in society, Hishoono should have known better. His Facebook comments, even after he had been served with a summons, showed him persisting in his defamatory statements, something that amounted to aggravating factors.
The aggravated defamation meant high compensation should be awarded, but the punitive legal costs, asked for by the plaintiff, would not be appropriate. The court’s order was therefore for damages of N$250 000 with interest at 20 % from the date of judgment. The court also ordered that Hishoono unconditionally retract his statements and apologise unreservedly to Geingos within five days, and that he bear the legal costs of the case.