Tanzanian media magnate defeated in landmark libel case against British citizen – By Magnus Taylor
On Friday 30th November 2012 a judgment was passed by Mr Justice Bean in a libel case brought by Tanzanian media magnate Reginald Mengi and a British solicitor, Sarah Hermitage. The judgment was in favour of Sarah Hermitage who was being sued on account of 5 blog posts and 2 emails she had written and made public concerning Mr Mengi’s influence over the output of newspapers controlled by his company, IPP Media. Specifically, this concerned an alleged defamatory campaign waged against Sarah Hermitage and her husband Stewart Middleton following a legal dispute with Reginald Mengi’s brother, Benjamin. Reginald Mengi claimed that he “was not responsible, not accountable and not answerable” for the editorial content of IPP publications. That claim was rejected by Justice Bean, who ruled:
“I find that the campaign in the Guardian and Nipashe [newspapers owned by IPP Media] 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.”
Sarah Hermitage and Stewart Middleton moved to Tanzania in 2000. In 2004 they bought the lease to the 550 acre Silverdale Farm from Benjamin Mengi – a Tanzanian businessman and brother of Reginald Mengi. Middleton and Hermitage set up an agricultural business on the land, employing around 150 local people. Subsequently, Benjamin Mengi disputed Middleton and Hermitage’s acquisition of the lease, and the couple say he launched a campaign of intimidation and harassment in order to force them off the land. Details of Mr Middleton’s account of events, as recorded in the case judgment, can be found reproduced in full on Sarah Hermitage’s blog: http://thesilverdalecase.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/mengi-v-hermitage-2012-ewhc-3445-qb.html In 2008 the couple fled Tanzania fearing for their lives after their property was frequently trespassed upon, damaged and their key operational Tanzanian staff were assaulted, arrested and imprisoned.
Whilst no charges have been made under Tanzanian law on the alleged conduct of Benjamin Mengi, or those employed by him in the Silverdale Farm dispute, the basis for the libel case in question, as stated by Justice Bean is that “I…approach this case on the basis that the Defendant’s evidence about the Silverdale Farm dispute is true,” given the fact that the evidence provided by her and Stewart Middleton – as included in Justice Bean’s Judgement – remained “unchallenged” by Mr Mengi.
Sarah Hermitage’s blog
Hermitage started blogging in 2009 about her and Middleton’s experiences in Tanzania. The blogs were publicly displayed, and whilst Hermitage suggests they did not receive a large audience, they were, in her own words, to “[give] me a voice and…to warn other people to not to go to Tanzania and not to invest, and thirdly, because the British government is pouring copious amounts of money in to a country whose President travels around the world spouting rhetoric of good governance and upholding the rule of law, and there are some inconsistencies in that rhetoric which I felt needed to be recorded.”
During the libel proceedings, Hermitage stated that “The Tanzanians cut out our hearts and hung them out to dry,” although in conversation she is fiercely loyal to the staff who worked on their farm (“some of the finest people you could ever hope to meet”) and with regards to Erick Kabendera (more on him later) – a Tanzanian journalist who testified during the proceedings – who she praised for his bravery in standing up for entrenched economic interests which control the media in the country.
The libel case brought against Hermitage by Reginald Mengi focused on 5 separate blog posts, four of which have now been removed from the Silverdale blog site. Space prevents me from detailing all the specific claims made by Hermitage about Mengi (all are available on the Silverdale blog here, begin at point 40.) Here are a few specific statements made by Hermitage:
On 5th December 2009 Hermitage posted a piece entitled “Reginald Mengi – A look into his mirror”, this post outlines the key details of Hermitage and Middleton’s experiences related to Silverdale Farm and both Mengi brothers. Hermitage states that following a meeting between Reginald Mengi, Stewart Middleton and the then British High Commissioner to Tanzania, Andrew Pocock, “IPP Media began a relentless campaign of defamation against the investors.”
On 15th Dec 2009 Hermitage published an article headed “Reginald Mengi, IPP Media openly supports corruption” stating that “In November 2005 Reginald [Mengi] gave his personal assurances to the British government [referring to the meeting between Mengi, Pocock (the British High Commissioner) and Middleton in 2009] that IPP Media would not engage in defamatory practises against the British investors in the Silverdale case. He lied.”
On 31st January 2010 Hermitage wrote that Middleton and she had been “driven from Tanzania by violence, abuse and intimidation instigated by Benjamin Mengi and facilitated by the police, judiciary and senior members of the Tanzanian government.”
Two emails were also cited, one to the Rev. Mark Hanson, and with a variety of other individuals associated with the Lutheran church in Tanzania copied in, and the second to Mr Amadou Mahter Ba, CEO of the Africa Media initiative, copied in was Mr Linus Gitahi, CEO of the Nation Media Group in Kenya. Both emails address Reginald Mengi’s supposed hypocrisy, firstly owing to the fact that he is seen as a “staunch follower of the Lutheran church in Tanzania”, whilst conducting a defamation campaign against Hermitage and Middleton, seemingly counter to the values of the church. The latter questioned whether it was appropriate to appoint Reginald Mengi as co-chair of a “flagship” AMI Forum held in Cameroon later that year given his newspapers’ alleged conduct in relation to the Silverdale case.
Reginald Mengi’s newspapers
The libel case brought by Reginald Mengi focused on Hermitage’s allegation that he facilitated biased reporting on the Silverdale Farm case in order to help his brother in his hour of need.
Reginald Mengi, however, stated that allegations regarding the running of his newspapers were untrue as he adopts a “˜hands off’ approach to this part of his business life. Mr Mengi said, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, that he hardly ever visits his newsrooms. He did however admit that he has a press secretary (Mr Njovu) who does, issuing press releases on his behalf.
In his judgment, Justice Bean stated that, with reference to the Silverdale case, “there was no dispute between counsel that the series of articles, mostly though not always written by Jackson Kimambo [a journalist working for the IPP newspaper, Nipashe], gave a slanted and partisan account wholly supportive of Benjamin. The dispute is over why this was so.”
The journalist, Mr Kimambo, did not testify in the case, Justice Bean stating that “the claimant’s failure to adduce any evidence from him is very striking.” Mr Luhanga, an editor at Nipashe, did testify through a translator, but his testimony with regards to all 5 of the articles in question covering the Silverdale case was simply a reproduction a of a model text detailing an editorial process (this can be viewed in point 80 of the judgment). Justice Bean described this evidence as “mechanistic” and judged that it was not an actual recollection of an editorial meeting or process, but a description of what “usually happened or was supposed to happen.”
From this evidence Justice Bean concluded that: “there is only one realistic explanation for the one-sided coverage of the Silverdale Farm dispute in the Guardian and Nipashe: namely that Mr Mengi had appointed a loyal team of editors who lay down the party line, with his approval that nothing is to be published which criticises the Executive Chairman or his family.”
Justice Bean later goes on to state that “…I am left in no doubt that Mr Mengi encouraged the campaign in his newspapers to praise his brother and denigrate the Middletons.”
Testimony from a Tanzanian journalist
In November 2012 I met with Erick Kabendera, a witness in the libel proceedings, who had worked at the IPP paper the Guardian, between 2009 and 2010 (he is a former winner of a David Astor Journalism Awards scholarship to work in the UK at The Independent and The Times). In Kabendera’s evidence he said that he had initially been advised by friends not to testify against Reginald Mengi as they thought “[he did] not need to fight with him [Mengi], because the repercussion (sic) of that could end your career.” During the court proceedings, and in person throughout our interview, Kabendera made the argument that Reginald Mengi’s influence on what journalists at the Guardian published on a day-to-day basis was pervasive.
Kabendera alleges that at editorial meetings (which he attended) “it was made clear (to you) that the newspaper’s editor wanted stories to run on the front page relating to the claimant [Reginald Mengi], including on his war on corruption, reporting favourably on statements made by allies of the claimant.”
Kabendera also recounted how Abdul Hamid Njovu, Reginald Mengi’s “˜press advisor’ would often come to the newsroom at the Guardian “to say Mr Mengi would be having an important event and that we needed to send a good journalist, an experienced journalist”.
Kabendera also asserts that on joining the newspaper he had been informed that “the IPP Guardian would not publish any negative stories about mining in Tanzania “because the claimant had substantial interests in the industry””, although this point is somewhat weakened by the evidence of an extensive feature article published in the paper on the subject of poisoned water coming from a mine run and owned by Barrick Gold (a mining firm operating in Tanzania.)
A similar and better supported claim was made regarding slanted coverage of the President. A memorandum of 16th October 2008 from Mr Kiondo Mshana, Managing editor of the Guradian, to Sakina Datoo, then IPP Print Media Group’s Editorial Director (copied to Mr Nguma – Director of Guardian Ltd), stated: “You will recall my having officially notified you recently that it is absolutely necessary for my advice to be sought before any of The Guardian Limited publications runs controversial or any otherwise sensitive stories on President Jakaya Kikwete.”
He continues: “I take this opportunity to state that this remains the Company’s official stand…” The inclusion of “˜remains’ suggests that this policy was long-standing, and not simply implemented on an ad-hoc basis.
Taken from Kabendera’s witness statement, he asserts that “It was common knowledge amongst journalists at the IPP Guardian that the claimant would be generous if they carried out his wishes…”
Kabendera cites these allegations of corruption against Reginald Mengi as being “common knowledge” in media circles in Tanzania. He even states that “this is not considered as corruption…I have met so many other reporters…who have admitted in public gathering…that at one point in their career …they have gone to Mr Reginald Mengi’s office, begged for money or given money for different reasons and it is common knowledge.”
Kabendera’s evidence, particularly this last point, was aggressively challenged under cross-examination, but his general commentary on the media environment in Tanzania, delivered to me in a non-legal context, revealed a number of interesting assertions about the state of the press in the country.
He restated the point that “it is common knowledge in Tanzania that Mengi interferes with his media”. At the Guardian “no significant editorial decision is made without consulting Mengi.”
Tanzania was, for many years, considered to be a less interesting African country relative to, for example, its more volatile neighbour, Kenya. However, Kabendera argues that this allowed room for powerful interests to, almost unnoticed, do what they wanted. Journalism remains a relatively low-status and poorly paid profession, and it is difficult to keep young, dedicated journalists in the profession.
As Tanzania goes through something of a transformative period, in which its offshore gas finds come on-stream, it is going to need a robust “˜4th estate’ in order to objectively report the development of commercial deals in the sector. Unfortunately, no such resource exists.
The judgment in the Mengi-Hermitage case cannot be said to be definitive in its assessment of the media environment in Tanzania. However, it does suggest that powerful economic interests are able to manipulate the functioning of the press in their own particular fiefdoms. The Mengi-Hermitage case does little to suggest the sort of open and independent media environment exists that is able to hold truth to power.
Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Arguments Online.
African Arguments has previously published Sarah Hermitage’s commentary on Tanzanian affairs.
Reginald Mengi declined to comment when approached.