Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has lost a long-running defamation case against the editor of Miadhu newspaper Abdul ‘Gabey’ Latheef.
Gayoom sued Latheef over an article published on June 13, 2010 which referenced allegations of corruption against the former President made in a New York Times (NYT) report.
That story was based on an audit report of former Presidential palace Theemuge, published by Auditor General Ibrahim Naeem, a damning indictment of the former government’s spending habits.
These, according to the NYT article, included an estimated “US$9.5 million spent buying and delivering a luxury yacht from Germany for the president, US$17 million on renovations of the presidential palace and family houses, a saltwater swimming pool, badminton court, gymnasium, 11 speed boats and 55 cars, including the country’s only Mercedes-Benz.”
“And the list goes on, from Loro Piana suits and trousers to watches and hefty bills for medical services in Singapore for ‘important people and their families. There was a US$70,000 trip to Dubai by the first lady in 2007, a US$20,000 bill for a member of the family of the former president to stay a week at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. On one occasion, diapers were sent to the islands by airfreight from Britain for Mr Gayoom’s grandson.”
Onus of proof
The Civil Court ruled today that as both articles were based on a state audit report, the information made public by the country’s first independent auditor general should be considered valid unless proven otherwise.
The court judgment added that there was no legal basis for individuals or media outlets to be held responsible for proving the truth or falsehood of an official audit report.
Delivering the judgment, Judge Mariyam Nihayath said that while the court believed the articles in question could be damaging to Gayoom’s reputation, information publicised in an audit report must be considered factual unless proven otherwise.
“Regardless of how damaging statements made or information provided is to the plaintiff’s honour or dignity, if the statement or information is true, [defamation law] states that it cannot be considered defamatory,” she said.
Latheef told Minivan News today that the court case was the first case Gayoom had lost in 32 years, and was a landmark case for freedom of the media.
“The media must be able to report on independent authorities such as the Auditor General’s Office or the Anti-Corruption Commission,” he said. “His lawyers said in court four or five times that they wanted to stop the media writing about these things.”
The court’s ruling meant that Gayoom was obliged to sue the source of the allegations, the Auditor General’s office, rather than the media that reported on it, Latheef said.
“[Gayoom] has been saying for three years he would take the Auditor General to court, but he hasn’t because he knows he will lose. But he thinks that, because I’m just an ordinary man, he can sue me,” he said.
Latheef said that one of Gayoom’s lawyers had approached him to settle out of court, but said he had refused as that would not have resolved the issue of media freedom at stake.
“They also approached me indirectly through some of my close friends to say why didn’t I settle and say sorry in court, and then they could support me. I said it was not compensation I needed.”
Latheef said Gayoom’s lawyers had told him after the verdict that they intended to appeal in the High Court.
“I am ready to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Latheef.
Gayoom’s spokesperson Mohamed ‘Mundhu’ Shareef had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.
Head of the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA), Ahmed ‘Hiriga’ Zahir, said he agreed with the ruling and felt that it was a good precedent for the country’s journalists.
“The NYT reported on the audit report and Mr Latheef reported on the NYT story. I agree with the court’s judgement,” Hiriga said, concurring that the media was not under obligation to prove the veracity of official government reports.
“The authenticity of the audit report is a different question, and the accusation is that the Auditor General was biased and that the report was politically motivated. That was the basis of the argument by Gayoom’s lawyer,” Hiriga said.
The opposition have steadfastly maintained that the report was a politically-motivated attempt to sully the then-president’s reputation prior to the election. Naeem was however appointed by Gayoom.
“It is common knowledge that Naeem’s audit reports were both politically-motivated and riddled with inaccuracies. References from such documents are unbecoming of professional journalists, albeit the MDP government utilises them as handbooks to achieve their political objectives,” said the DRP in a statement following publication of the article.
“The MDP government, in an year and a half of searching through its ‘presidential commission’, has failed to find anything that they can pin against President Gayoom to defame his character. The MDP government will continue to fail in their sinister plots,” the DRP statement read.
“The DRP will take all necessary action to alert the international community to the government’s sinister motives behind the allegations against the former president. We condemn the government for its continued attempts to shroud its incompetence in running the country behind cheap propaganda gimmicks.”
Naeem’s tenure following publication of over 30 audit reports, alleging rampant corruption and “organised crime” by the Gayoom administration, was short-lived.
On March 24 last year, Naeem sent a list of current and former government ministers to the Prosecutor General, requesting they be prosecuted for failure to declare their assets. Naeem cited Article 138 of the Constitution that requires every member of the Cabinet to “annually submit to the Auditor General a statement of all property and monies owned by him, business interests and all assets and liabilities.”
He then held a press conference: “A lot of the government’s money was taken through corrupt [means] and saved in the banks of England, Switzerland, Singapore and Malaysia,” Naeem said, during his first press appearance in eight months.
Five days later he was dismissed by the opposition-majority parliament on allegations of corruption by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), for purportedly using the government’s money to buy a tie and visit Thulhaidhu in Baa Atoll.
The motion to dismiss Naeem was put forward by the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by Deputy Speaker and member of opposition-allied People’s Alliance (PA), Ahmed Nazim, who the previous week had pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to defraud the former Ministry of Atolls Development while he was Managing Director of Namira Engineering and Trading Pvt Ltd.
Nazim was today dismissing claims from opposition MPs that he has dodged Criminal Court summons regarding the matter eight times to date.
The parliament has meanwhile yet to approve a replacement auditor general, with the finance committee refusing to endorse any of the candidates put forward so far by President Mohamed Nasheed.