Fortune Wins Landmark Case against Ayat

Addis FortuneAbiy Wendifraw, Addis Fortune: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Independent News & Media Plc (INMP), publishers and distributors of Fortune, a business English weekly, appeared victorious late last week in a landmark legal battle against Ayat Share Company, a pioneering and giant real estate developer in Ethiopia.

Commonly known by the paper’s name, Fortune, the private media company’s latest court victory is the third case it has won during the past one and half year. The charge by the real estate company was the highest ever civil lawsuit against Fortune. It was also the first multimillion Birr claim against a private media company in Ethiopia’s history.

The Eighth Civil Bench of the Federal High Court passed the historic judgement last Friday, June 12, 2009; setting all the defendants in this count, including the private media company, and five journalists free from the alleged libellous reporting they were accused of.

Ayat filed the civil suit on December 27, 2007, claiming compensation worth a little over 20.4 million Br against the publisher of Fortune; Tamrat G. Giorgis, general manager of the media company and managing editor of the paper; Isayas Biru, former editor-in-chief; and Isayas Mekuria, former deputy editor-in-chief, along with Wudineh Zenebe and Feven Chane, former reporters with the newspaper.

Ayat alleged that the newspaper had affronted its reputation and caused it loss on its revenues, through five editions issued between April 2005 and November 2008. The stories prompted the lawsuit are with headlines, “Ayat at Odds with Home Owners”; “Ayat Residents Facing Water Shortage”; “Commission Arrests Senior Officials in Alleged Real Estate Fraud”; “Life, Liberty and the Land Administration”; and “Is the Real Estate Market Competitive? Not So Much”, the latter was published on the “Op-Ed Notes” column of the paper.

The Court had been investigating the validity of the assertions made by the plaintiff that the paper distributed slanderous reports about the real estate developer. The Court framed the litigation to be conducted on three merits: Whether or not the stories published contain defamatory content; the responsibilities each defendant would assume should the stories constitute defamation; and punitive damage awarded to the plaintiff and each defendant should pay.

However, the Eighth Civil Bench of the Federal High Court, presided by Judge Abas Mohammed, has dismissed all the charges and ruled in favour of Independent News & Media Plc and the five journalists.

“The Court has found none of the many charges constitute defamation,” the Court ruled.

The paper was also accused of misleading the public through a photograph, an aerial view showing the area where Ayat built its homes, and taken from Google Earth. The developer alleged that the photo deliberately misled the public that Ayat built residential houses on a plot it acquired and designated for industrial purpose. The Court rejected this claim; it said that the defendants admitted the photograph was mistakenly associated with the wrong caption. The photo is a top view, which the court stated, is less likely to mislead readers because their focus would be on the news content.

The plaintiff also accused the paper of publishing an incorrect number of shareholders. It stated that the paper reduced the number from 18 to three, in its bid to show instability within the company. However, the Court ruled neither did the company brought the exact number of shareholders at the time the story appeared.

Beyond the delight out of winning the case, the defense lawyer, Tadesse Kiros, considers the verdict a milestone for the media industry.

“For a case that has a lot of implication in relations to the constitutional freedom of expression and of the press, this is really a verdict that I am happy about,” Tadesse Kirose, Independent’s lawyer, told Fortune. “We are also happy for the meaning of the verdict goes to the extent safeguarding the freedom of expression.”

The Court’s judgment in favour of the media company, which includes recovering expenses and losses during the litigation, will have a strong message, for often journalists do not afford to challenge corporate forces with considerable resources, according to Tadesse.

Journalists can now feel that they can come out victorious and convey the message that simply accusing them would have a cost, Tadesse said.

“The financial loss these charges against our clients have brought upon the plaintiffs themselves is significant,” Tadesse said.

For Tamrat, the case is not just a battle between Fortune and the plaintiff. It is a demonstration of an assault on the media’s struggle to establish itself in society. The Managing Editor considers the case as an example of the attempts by non-state actors to flex their muscles and using their resources creating an environment that causes the media to be timid and very cautious.

“If the verdict were to be in favour of the plaintiff, then obviously no media would dare to report on issues that may lead to such cases,” Tamrat said. “Luckily, the verdict is in favour of our newspaper; and what it means to me is that the judiciary has sent a very clear message that if you want to prosecute a newspaper, get the verdict in favour of your case, then you better have solid, sufficient and strong case. In the absence of that, it is very difficult and costly to prosecute media.”

Ayat’s lawyers have declined to comment on the Court’s judgment and whether or not they are going to appeal, attributing that they have not received copy of verdict by Friday late afternoon.

“We just heard the verdict, and have nothing to say now,” Hailu Asmer, one of Ayat’s three lawyers, told Fortune.

This is the third legal battle for Independent News & Media Plc to win. The First Instance Court dropped defamation charges filed by Anbessa City Bus on July 2, 2008; and the civil suit filed by Saba Engineering Plc against the same media house was rejected in January 2009. The later is now pending subsequent to the plaintiff’s appeal.