Judge Johan Louw last week ruled in the High Court in Pretoria that the DA’s Jacques Smalle and Heidi Smith, the editor of the newspaper Kruger2Canyon, had defamed property developer Southern Palace Investments 44 (Pty) Ltd (SPI) and its director Soren Nielsen.
The Judge ordered Smalle to pay R40 000 to Southern Palace and Smith to pay R80 000 to Nielsen and his company.
The defamation claim followed after Smalle issued a press release in May 2013 and the newspaper published an article based on the statement which amongst others accused Southern Palace of “hawking water to Hoedspruit farmers at grossly escalated prices”.
The press statement and article also wrongly claimed Southern Palace’s conclusion of a bulk water supply agreement with the Lepelle Northern Water Board was being investigated by the Blue Scorpions and made reference to “corrupt contractors and authorities who don’t respect the value of water”.
Nielson, who also developed the Blyde Wildlife Estate, said the statements were defamatory but Smalle and Smith claimed the statements were true and constituted fair comment.
Judge Louw said there was no doubt that the statements were defamatory. It implied fraud, criminal conduct and some corrupt collision between the water board and SPI.
More weight would normally be attached to utterances by public officials and they therefore needed to be extra careful when making statements which may be defamatory of other persons.
The newspaper’s apology in the form of publishing an extract of a letter by Nielson’s attorney and an apology in small print for not contacting Nielson did not have any mitigating effect, he added.
Nielson testified that he had to close down his building business as he believed people would not use his services if they thought he was in serious trouble with the law.
He said the intention had not been to sell water but to sell shares in SPI. The bulk water agreement was never implemented.
Judge Louw said even if it was SPI’s intention sell water to other farmers, there was no evidence of actual sales of shares being concluded.