Tuesday, October 19, 2021

PS wants Sunday Standard to apologise for reproducing court judgement

In a highly unusual development, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame, has asked Sunday Standard to retract a story and apologise for a story that merely quotes a High Court judgement. For good measure, she makes a thinly veiled threat on behalf of her political boss, the Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Vincent Seretse, who is the subject of the judgement.

Seretse deposed to an affidavit in a case in which Letsatsi Casino in Palapye challenged a decision he made. The Casino Control Board (renamed Gambling Authority) turned down an application by the casino to have its licence renewed. Dissatisfied with the Authority’s decision, Letsatsi appealed to Seretse who upheld the Authority’s earlier decision. It was then that the casino operator took the matter to the Gaborone High Court, thus compelling the minister to file court papers in which he made an assertion that Justice Dr. Zein Kebonang found to be false.

“When requested to produce a record of proceedings in respect of the review application, the minister stated under oath that no such record existed. The minister’s position was reflected in an affidavit filed by him on the 12th August 2016. That the record did not exist was in fact a falsehood. This is so because on the 16th August 2016, the [Gambling Authority] did produce the record of proceedings sought by the applicant,” Kebonang’s judgement says.

Last week, Sunday Standard published a story headlined “Minister lied under oath” that was based on this part of the judgement. Two days later, it turned out that the article ruffled some feathers at the ministry’s headquarters. A complaint/demand letter from Serame asks the paper’s editor, Outsa Mokone, to retract the story and apologise. Editors get these kinds of letters on an almost daily basis but what is uncommon about Serame’s is that it essentially complains about the reproduction of a court judgement whose formulation Sunday Standard had absolutely nothing to do with.

Serame’s understanding of court reporting seems to be that a matter before open court should not be reported on until it is concluded. The Gambling Authority has appealed Kebonang’s judgement at the Court of Appeal and in that regard, the matter has not been concluded. However, there is nothing with reporting on a phase of the case that has been concluded. This has been the practice all along. If Sunday Standard’s reportage was in contempt of court, the High Court itself would have reacted as swiftly as it has in the past. That has not happened.

As uncommon about Serame’s letter is its lack of specificity with regard to parts of the story that the author finds offensive. The offending part is drawn from the judgement and any apology would be in the form of the paper apologising on behalf of the High Court. This never happens.

Sereme’s letter also communicates the threat that Seretse reserves the right to take legal action.

The irony of Seretse taking legal action against the paper is that with the court having determined that he lied, it can (but chose not to) take punitive action against him for an infraction that the law expressly criminalises. Had the court made an order to that effect, the police would have been directed to charge the minister with perjury.

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