High Court orders Monitor to pay Bigirimana Shs 450m for defamation

Mabirizi sues Bigirimana over judicial officers' allowances
Pius Bigirimana, Judiciary Permanent Secretary

Kampala, Uganda | URN | The High Court in Kampala has ordered Monitor Publications Limited to pay 450 million shillings to the Judiciary Permanent Secretary Pius Bigirimana for defamation.

The head of Civil Division of the High Court Musa Ssekaana made the decision on Friday after finding that Monitor Publications together with four others jointly published 15 articles between 2012 and 2017, which the Judge has described as twisted, skewed and crafted in a manner that portrayed Mr Bigirimana as the key suspect in the Office of the Prime Minister financial scam that was then under investigations.

The four others are; The Managing Director Monitor Publications Limited, its Editor in Chief and the Editor for Sunday Monitor, together with their reporter.

The judgement arises from a successful defamation suit filed by Mr Bigirimana in 2017, saying that between 2012 and 2015, the respondents continuously made numerous malicious, spiteful, untrue and defamatory publications against him in the Daily Monitor, Saturday Monitor, and the Sunday Monitor.

Although Mr Bigirimana noted that 42 articles that were written around that time portrayed him as an embattled civil servant who made illicit expenditure on OPM funds, a person who thrives on statehouse’s pampering and patronage, obstructs police investigations and above all, a liar, he was able to select 15 articles that he took to court and has succeeded.

Some of the articles bore titles such as, “Auditors target Bigirimana in cash probe”; “Bigirimana’s wife acquires Shs 250m Mercedes Benz”; “Treasury Officials accuse OPM PS of covering money scam”; “MPs Order Government to remove Bigirimana”; “Denmark Warns of Aid Cut over OPM Scandal”; and “Corruption Ledger” among others.

The court records show that the said stories generally talked about how more than 500 billion shillings donor funds meant for Northern Uganda post-war rehabilitation, allegedly got lost in the hands and under the watch of Bigirimana, who was the then Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Not happy with the articles, through his lawyer Godfrey Himbaza, Mr Bigirimana petitioned court arguing that the said publications were false and intended to tarnish his name.

According to Mr Bigirimana, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Justice Mike Chibita wrote a letter on May 28th 2019, clearing him and stating that in all the cases that have been prosecuted so far, his role was that of a complainant and prosecution witness.

He added that the respondents did not reach up to him to verify the veracity of the said allegations, despite the fact that as a public servant, he was accessible to anybody. But instead, that the publications decided to go ahead and publish the stories wantonly without regard to the negative impact they would have on him.

As such, court heard that the aforementioned articles in their natural and ordinary meaning, meant or were understood to mean in the minds of right thinking members of the public that; he is a person who is above the law with an untouchable mentality and personality; a person who obstructs the course of Justice; is culpable for fraud but disguises himself as a whistle blower; a person who thrives on presidential pampering and patronage among others.

Because of the said publications, Mr Bigirimana demanded for an apology and compensation saying he has since suffered damage and injury and lost public reputation and has been shunned at his place of work, family, general public and the world at large.

However, in their defense, the respondents through their lawyer James Nangwala and Diana Kwesiga, submitted that the publications complained of were made on an occasion of qualified privilege of which, when established, is a complete defense to an action for libel.

The lawyers argued further the publication is not defamatory since the they had a social, moral and legal duty to make the publication in that respect to the public which similarly had a corresponding moral and social duty to receive the publication.

Accordingly, they asked court to dismiss Bigirimana’s suit on grounds that some of his prayers were filed out of time and each of the impugned publication was made on an occasion of privilege and is therefore not unlawful.

However, in his judgement, Justice Ssekaana agreed with Mr Bigirimana saying that the allegations were very serious and grave in nature.

“What made it even grave is that the said money was meant for Northern Uganda post-war rehabilitation, the said region having gone through decades of war and trauma,” said Sekaana. “Any person believed to have tampered with the said aid, in the eyes of reasonable and right thinking members of society would be equated to a mass murderer.”

The Judge has further ruled that the evidence on record clearly shows a systematic scheme to report specifically about Mr Bigirimana and this was in a manner that would portray him as the key suspect in the financial scam which was under investigations.

“The publications seem to excite the public against the plaintiff/Bigirimana to form adverse opinions or exposes him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injure him in his employment and thus to cause him to be shunned or avoided in society”, reads Ssekaana’s judgement in part.

The judgement goes on: “The stories as set in the plaint are twisted, skewed and crafted in a manner which portrayed the plaintiff in a negative sense as a corrupt person under investigations.”

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He further ruled that the stories are materially false and only intended to portray Mr Bigirimana as uncooperative in the investigation of corruption in OPM or that he has something to hide from the public.

”The reporters failed to appreciate the nature of the fraud and how it was done, and resorted to make conclusive remarks about the plaintiff/Bigirimana as the main suspect since he was the accounting officer and yet the PAC report had set out an elaborate procedure on how the scheme that led to the embezzlement was executed by officials of Ministry of Finance, Bank of Uganda and the Principal Accountant of OPM’, held Ssekaana.

Accordingly, Ssekaana has issued a permanent injunction restraining the respondents, their agents and assignees from publishing further defamatory statements about Mr Bigirimana.

Monitor Publications has also been ordered to publish an apology with equal publicity as the disputed defamatory publications for a period of two weeks at least two times a week.

The Judge has further ordered that the 450 million shillings that is to be paid to Mr Bigirimana in compensation will attract a 10 percent interest effective today until its paid in full.

In March 2021, the President of Uganda Yoweri Kaguta Museveni filed a defamation case against the same paper and its Editors seeking compensation for the damages caused to him after they published a story saying that Mr Museveni and his inner circle had secretly been given COVID-19 jabs, at the time when there were no vaccines in the country.

The case is pending hearing before the same Judge, Ssekaana.