How an attempt at ‘libel tourism’ rebounded on a Tanzanian tycoon

A British citizen blogged about a Tanzanian media magnate involved in throwing her and her husband off their Tanzanian farm. He sued for libel in a British court. Dominic Burbidge explains.

The case

In 2000, Sarah Hermitage and Stewart Middleton settled in Tanzania, buying a 550 acre farm on which they employed about 150 Tanzanian staff. The British couple purchased the land from Benjamin Mengi, who later claimed he had not been paid in full. Following legal disputes, the staff of the farm suffered assault, arrest and imprisonment from local authorities, and the property of the farm was damaged. Alongside this treatment, The Guardian and Nipashe – two Tanzanian newspapers belonging to the IPP Media group run by Benjamin’s brother, Reginald Mengi – conducted a defamatory campaign against the British couple.

In 2008 the couple left Tanzania, fearing for their safety, and Hermitage blogged about her experiences, discouraging others from investing in Tanzania. In particular, Hermitage wrote five blog posts and two emails which accused Reginald Mengi of influencing the output of newspapers under IPP media. In response, Reginald Mengi sued for libel in a British court, arguing that he “was not responsible, not accountable and not answerable” for the newspapers’ editorial content. In an important decision, the judge found in favour of Hermitage, concluding that “the campaign in the Guardian and Nipashe facilitated Benjamin’s corruption of local officials and intimidation of the Middletons and thus helped Benjamin to destroy their investments and grab their properties; and that Mr [Reginald] Mengi, since he either encouraged or knowingly permitted the campaign, was in that sense complicit in Benjamin’s corruption and intimidation.” Reginald Mengi was ordered to pay over 1 million pounds for the cost of the lawsuit.

Author opinion

In a similar vein to Rupert Murdoch’s defence when News International was accused of phone hacking, Reginald Mengi’s position rested on a claim of ignorance, arguing that Hermitage was exaggerating his influence when she accused him of masterminding a media campaign. If media houses are to be held to account, however, their proprietors and management must accept responsibility for their editorial content. To refuse this responsibility renders citizens at an unfair disadvantage by making media strategies almost impossible to source.

Unfortunately, the actions of the Mengi brothers have encouraged a view of Tanzania as a place of lawlessness and unpredictable investment, like Zimbabwe, when the reality is that Tanzania is one of the most stable and peaceful countries in Africa. This framing will not be helped by the decision of the British couple to take Tanzania to an international arbitration court over their lack of state-provided protection as foreign investors. How the libel case even came to the High Court says something about the over-breadth of UK libel laws at the time. Under the new British Defamation Act, which became law in 2013, such a ridiculous piece of ‘libel tourism’ would no longer be possible.

- Dominic Burbidge

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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