Court rejects Keleʻa Newspaper’s bit to justify defamation claims against former cabinet leaders

The fight by Keleʻa Newspaper to justify publication of a defamatory letter saying it was protected under “qualified privilege” because the content was allegedly raised in parliament has been dismissed by the Supreme Court.

Justice Scott said:“If the Appellant had accurately reported that  it had  been  claimed  or even proved in Parliament that the Respondents had acted as dishonestly as was alleged in the letter then the Respondents’ claim could not have succeeded”.

The judge said listening “to proceedings in Parliament may justify a person in coming to a private conclusion that a person has acted dishonestly” but to publish it without proof for the public cannot be justified.

The newspaper, its former editor  Mateni Tapueluelu, publisher Laucala Pohiva Tapueluelu and a writer to the paper Solomone Palu took an appeal to the Supreme Court in April 6 in a bid to overturn the Magistrate Court decision ordering them to pay the respondents damages  and  costs.

The case had been brought to the Magistrate Court in 2013 by the former Prime Minister Lord TuÊ»ivakanō and some of his former cabinet ministers including William Clive  Edwards, Viliami Uasike LatÅ«, Sōsefo Fe’ao Vakatā, Samiu Kuita Vaipulu Dr. ‘Ana Taufe’ulungaki and Sione Sangster Saulala.

In June 2014 the Magistrate Court ordered the appellants to pay  TP$ $249,442.00 (US$112,523.29) to the respondents.

In an eight page ruling dated May 6, 2016  Justice Scott said the  Magistrate’s conclusion that the appellants had failed “to prove that the publication of the letter was an occasion of qualified privilege was correct”.

The court heard  Palu wrote and was published by the paper on October 29,  2012 that the former Prime Minister and his ministers “were guilty of theft and embezzlement”.

Justice Scott said: “Such claims are obviously defamatory and the question therefore was whether, in the absence of a defence of justification, the occasion on which they were  made was  privileged”.

The judge said it was clear the letter was based on what Palu “had heard on the radio about the proceedings then current in Parliament”.

However, Mr Edwards who also acted for the respondents argued that “the  letter itself makes no reference to any such proceedings and cannot viewed objectively be seen as any kind of report of what had there transpired”.

Mr Scott said Palu’s “letter contains no information which  it is in the public interest to have published. The bulk of the letter is a harmless commentary on current affairs but the matters complained of are not information at all: they are statements of fact for which no justification was attempted by reference to any transcript of what had actually  been stated in Parliament”.

I can find no duty or public interest in the appellants  publishing  this letter, Mr Scott said.

Mr  Siosifa Tu’utafaiva who acted for the appellants quoted a previous court case in which the “Magistrate  had erred  in rejecting the  defence  of qualified privilege on the ground that the defence was not available when the communication involved untrue  statements  of  fact”.

But Mr Scott said the defence was “rightly rejected by the Magistrate albeit for different reasons that I have set out”.

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