By Henry D Gombya
Tanzanian media baron Reginald Mengi has been ordered by the High Court in London to pay nearly £1.9 million as security for a libel action he is taking against a British couple. Mengi, who is Chairman and CEO of IPP Media, a powerful Group of Newspaper, Television and Radio companies, isTanzania’s premiere information provider. He is suing British lawyer Sarah Hermitage for allegedly spearheading a deliberate campaign to damage his personal and business reputation.
Mengi who also owns Bonite Brothers that markets the fizzy drink Coca Cola in Tanzania, filed a suit against Ms Hermitage arguing that in 2009 and 2010, she published on her website a series of defamatory allegations about him. He is seeking damages and an injunction to halt the claims. Mr Mengi complains that Ms Hermitage published five articles on her website and two emails relating to events in Tanzania, from where she and her husband Stewart Middleton were forced to flee in 2008, abandoning their investment in a farm they had legally leased from Mengi’s younger brother Benjamin.
In May 2004, Benjamin had assigned the lease to Silverdale & Mbono Farms (Hai District) to British investor Stewart Middleton in full compliance with the laws of Tanzania. In May 2005, Mengi demanded the lease back on the basis that he had not been paid in full despite, signing a full receipt. When Mr. Middleton refused, he and his Tanzanian staff were subjected to violence, harassment, imprisonment and intimidation based on accusations levelled by Benjamin Mengi and his wife Millie Mengi.
In his writ, the Tanzanian media baron says Hermitage and Middleton claimed he had directed a campaign of ‘cowardly, deliberately inaccurate and abusive attacks’ on them, amounting to ‘journalistic terrorism’. He is seeking an injunction banning the repetition of the claims at the centre of Ms Hermitage’s legal battle as well as damages.
Delivering his judgment, Mr Justice Tugendhat noted that Mr Mengi’s claim for his pre-action costs alone amounted to £298,245.07, and that his total costs of taking the case to trial are estimated at £1,240,183. Directing that Mr Mengi should provide further security for Sarah Hermitage’s legal costs, including provision for a success fee under the Conditional Fee Agreement, the Judge observed:-
“All cases brought by foreign claimants from abroad engage the rights of the parties to access to the court. But where, as here, the right of freedom of expression is also engaged, it is all the more important that the parties should be on an equal footing in their ability to fund proper representation, so far as the court is able to achieve that.”
Mr Mengi is being asked to pay this huge fee to make it possible for the defendant to be in a position to have her costs paid for in case the case went against the claimant. According to Judge Tugendhat, claimants who do not reside in the area of jurisdiction for their claims have to be asked to put up those sureties before the case can go on. It is not clear what Mr Mengi plans to do and there have since been silence from him as regards to his writ in the High Court in London.
In his judgement, Mr Justice Tugendhat argues that a combination of two essential factors helped him reach his decision to ask for a surety from Mr Mengi. He said these were: (a) the element of corruption within the Tanzanian judiciary and (2) the importance of the claimant in his own country. He explained: “It is likely, and I emphasise likely in my judgement, that the status of the claimant would be used by those responsible in the courts of Tanzania for the registration and enforcement of an order for costs against him as a reason to hinder and delay such registration and enforcement.”
The judge went on to add: “It is sufficient to find, and I do so find that [the defendant] would encounter considerable delay, considerable obstruction and considerable expense in terms of payment of her solicitor’s legal costs of enforcement in combating such delay and obstruction.” The judge then ordered Mr Mengi to pay £1,868,000 into court as security for costs in the libel proceedings against Ms Hermitage.