A US court has awarded Zambia's Deputy Commerce Minister over US$50,000 in a defamation suit against social news site Kachepa360, hosted in and run from the United States.
Kachepa360, which ceased operations nearly two years ago, targeted high-ranking officials, business people and celebrities, exposing alleged infidelities and other scandals. In local dialects, the word Kachepa carries connotations of rumour mongering and gossip.
According to the Zambian Watchdog, Kachepa owner Chisala Mulenga suspended activities on the site after her parents, who reside in Zambia, received threats from individuals targeted by the site. Deputy Commerce Minister Miles Sampa, whose “sexual exploits” had been highlighted on Kachepa, filed the suit in the United States, where Mulenga resides. The case was heard before a court in the state of Massachusetts.
After Minister Miles Sampa announced the court victory on Facebook, the story was picked up by citizen media websites Zambia Reports and Zambian Watchdog. On his Facebook page, Minister Sampa wrote:
In order to vindicate my name from perennial slanderous and unsubstantiated allegations directed at me by the online publication Kachepa360, I took up the matter in the USA courts of law where the defendant is domiciled.
After months of deliberations, the case was awarded in my favour against the promoter of the Publication Kachepa360, Ms Chisala Mulenga, and I have been awarded damages amounting to USD $50,000 at 12 % interest from November 2012.
Explaining why he pursued the matter in the US, he stated:
Although I welcome criticism, I believe that the journalism profession should be unbiased, factual and professional regardless of the location of their residence or the medium used to disseminate their information.
I decided on pursuing this matter in the relevant courts abroad to demonstrate that accountability is a standard for all, even for online publications which may feel that they are beyond the reach of the Law.
On Facebook, social and political commentator Proud Aushi Musamba Mumba challenged Sampa to sue the Zambian Watchdog instead of what she called a “small fish”:
Lol Hon Miles Sampa instead of suing big guns writing and accusing him of being corrupt he sues a small fish in the pond that people don't take serious or pay attention to as she clearly states “Kachepa 360.” Meaning it is based on rumours. Let him sue ZWD [Zambian Watchdog] that informs the nation on things they want carpeted.
Zambia Reports accused Sampa of using the suit as an opportunity “to warn those running critical websites in Zambia…not to hide behind the veil of anonymity as the law could catch up with them.”
Independent and citizen media websites in the country have faced a steady stream of attacks in recent months, leaving major sites including the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports increasingly difficult to access within Zambia. Critics suspect the attacks have been perpetrated by government authorities — in July, Vice President Dr. Guy Scott said he would celebrate if the Zambian Watchdog was shut down, and there has been much discussion of tensions between news outlets and government officials online.
Although Kachepa 360 held a slightly different category, providing readers with more guilty pleasures than transparency about government activities, the case could set a chilling precedent for other independent sites that scrutinize government officials. Now that a government Minister has successfully trounced Kachepa 360, what site might be the next victim?