Case will be important test for country’s media freedom.
A Namibian lawyer has filed a libel suit against the country’s largest daily newspaper over Panama Papers-related stories that linked the lawyer to companies used by Sicilian Mafia kingpin Vito Palazzolo, who was long a resident in South Africa (noses 8, 9, 23, 24 & 34).
Lawyer Henn Diekmann, who specialises in foreign investments in Namibia, alleges he was libelled in two stories that The Namibian published in 2016 and 2017. The stories resulted from reporting and from data unearthed as part of the Panama Papers investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Diekmann’s lawsuit names the publisher of The Namibian, Free Press of Namibia (Pty) Ltd, and editors and reporters Tangeni Amupadhi, Shinovene Immanuel, Tileni Mongudhi and Ndanki Kahiurika as defendants. Immanuel is a member of ICIJ.
Amupadhi, The Namibian’s editor, told ICIJ: “This is an attempt to intimidate and stop us and the rest of the news media from writing about people who clearly have a lot of resources to keep their activities secret.
“We have followed the best journalistic practices [and] stand by our reporting.”
The Sicilian Mafia used Namibia as a port of call for cocaine trafficking throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, according to media reports.
The Namibian revealed that Palazzolo, also known as Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko, a name he assumed while ambassador plenipotentiary for Ciskei in the apartheid years (see Diary of a Don, nose8) held up to 14 bank accounts with millions of dollars in Namibia.
Palazzolo was arrested in Bangkok in 2012 on an Interpol warrant to face charges in Italy related to his Mafia-associated activities. In December 2013, he was extradited to Italy where he remains in jail in Milan. He previously served a three-year jail term in Switzerland for laundering proceeds of the Mafia’s heroin trade in America – the so-called Pizza Connection.
The Namibian reported that Palazzolo and his family owned or used local companies involved in diamond mining and real estate, including one company in which the son of Namibia’s founding president was a shareholder.
In May 2016, referencing emails and documents from the ICIJ’s Panama Papers probe and, separately, communications obtained between the governments of Italy and Namibia, The Namibian expanded on its reporting.
Diekmann was the director of a Seychelles company linked through a fellow director to Palazzolo, The Namibian reported. A Hong Kong entity, H. Diekmann Trust, was a shareholder in the same company.
The Namibian reported that Diekmann was included in email correspondence about another Seychelles company alongside “Robert von Palace,” the name assumed by Palazzolo in South Africa in the 1980s, and the name by which he was identified in the Panama Papers documents.
Diekmann was also a co-director with Palazzolo’s son of yet another company, The Namibian reported.
Diekmann denies wrongdoing. He declined to answer questions sent by ICIJ but has previously told The Namibian he was “simply a lawyer representing clients”. He also rejected the newspaper’s defence that it has the duty to publish information in the public interest.
Amupadhi said that to lose the case would be “a killer” for his paper, as the defeat could come with legal costs five-times greater than the $20,000 (R293,315) in damages sought.
The Namibian’s lawyer, Norman Tjombe, said that Diekmann’s claim could be an important test of media freedom, which is protected under Namibia’s constitution. “Potentially, this will be the first case where an attempt will be made to broaden the defences available to the press in Namibia in defamation cases,” Tjombe wrote in an email shared with ICIJ.
Namibia is widely seen as one of Africa’s media success stories. Global media freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders recently ranked it second only to Ghana in its annual press freedom index for Africa.
But the fact that Namibia has not experienced violence against reporters or overtly repressive legislation of the kind adopted in other African countries “does not mean that Namibian journalists and media do not face difficulties or challenges,” said Arnaud Froger, head of the Reporters without Borders’ Africa desk.
“Access to information should be guaranteed in a law, and journalists should be protected from abusive defamation lawsuits,” he said.
Editor Amupadhi added: “We face several challenges, including the lack of an access-to-information law in a political and economic governance environment which is substantially non-transparent and unaccountable.”
• This report was sponsored by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
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