- Judge says words used by PTI leaders meet threshold of seriousness.
- PTI officials ran smear campaign against reporter for his journalism.
- Court rules journalist was defamed in all six publications by defendants.
LONDON: Geo News and The News London reporter Murtaza Ali Shah has won a preliminary trial on meaning for defamation at the UK High Court against three senior Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) officials who launched a defamatory social media campaign against the journalist in March 2020 in the UK during the PTI’s reign in Pakistan.
High Court Judge Justice Steyn, DBE, sitting at the King’s Bench Division of the Royal Courts of Justice, ruled that the words used by PTI leaders Mohammad Imran, Shanaz Saddique and Riaz Hussain against the media person were defamatory at common law and meet the threshold of seriousness.
At the time of making the defamatory statements and running a smear campaign, the three held powerful positions in the PTI UK; Mohammad Imran was the PTI northwest region’s president; Shanaz Saddique was the general secretary and Riaz Hussain was the additional general secretary of the party's northwest region.
The three PTI officials ran a smear campaign against Murtaza Ali Shah for his journalism, for his stance about the arrest and detention of Geo and Jang Editor-in-Chief Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on March 12, 2020, under the PTI government and the journalist’s exclusive reporting exposing how Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) had targeted children of Justice Qazi Faez Isa using a detective agency in the UK – a fact acknowledged also by Imran Khan after he was ousted from power.
After conducting a trial of preliminary issues of meaning at the UK High Court, Justice Steyn, DBE, accepted the meanings of six publications advanced by Shah’s barrister, Jacob Dean, and ruled that in all six publications by the defendants, the journalist was defamed at common law.
Murtaza Ali Shah, who has previously won two defamation cases at the UK High Court, brought his case against the three PTI officials after they came together and began a campaign against him on March 30, 2020, by launching a petition against him on Change.org and then publishing at least five YouTube, Facebook and Twitter posts.
The defamatory petition carrying false allegations and lies was sent to PTI ministers and leaders in the UK and Pakistan, seeking their support, on WhatsApp and through several WhatsApp groups with thousands of members.
Justice Steyn, DBE, ruled that whilst the defendants had made written submissions in reply to the meanings of the publications, they had not pleaded the meanings they contended. At the hearing, Saddique made representations on behalf of all the defendants but Justice Steyn DBE ruled that to a large extent, the “submissions addressed matters such as what they had intended, what viewers/readers had, in fact, understood the publications to mean, and evidence of surrounding matters” — all of which were “inadmissible”.
The Geo and The News journalist had relied on six publications for his claim against the three PTI officials.
The first publication was a petition with Shah’s photograph at the top of the page. The court found that the words used in the petition meant that Shah had “been misusing his position as a journalist by reporting news which he knew to be false and making allegations which he knew to be baseless with the aim of misleading his audience and garnering attention.”
Justice Steyn, DBE, ruled that “an allegation that a journalist has knowingly published false or baseless reports strikes at the heart of their professionalism, and undoubtedly meets both the consensus requirement and the threshold of seriousness. The statement of opinion that he has been misusing his professional position for his own purposes also meets those requirements. These are serious allegations to make against a professional journalist.”
In the second publication, Imran Hussain published a video (with a link to the petition) alleging that Shah has consistently, over many years, engaged in reporting negative news about Pakistan which he knew to be false, including the reporting of distorted facts and shockingly baseless claims, with the aim of misleading his audience and garnering attention. In doing so, he alleged that Shah has misused his position as a journalist, in breach of the rules of the UK media watchdog Ofcom, and it is high time his false reporting is exposed and stopped, and action taken against his employers by the Government of Pakistan.
Justice Steyn repeated that these were “serious allegations to make against a professional journalist. The seriousness is emphasised by the First Defendant’s call to action in terms of the petition, the need to report the claimant to Ofcom, and the suggestion that the government of Pakistan should take action against the Claimant’s employer.”
The third publication was a video by Hussain in which, Justice Steyn, DBE, found that the meanings of the words were defamatory and meant that Shah had until very recently been reporting unfairly distorted facts and had issued a video report with other journalists criticising Hussain.
In her judgment, Justice Steyn, DBE, stated that describing the behaviours of a journalist as “unfairly distorting facts, and secondly, lying repeatedly in a report, are contrary to common, shared values of our society… I consider that it meets the threshold of seriousness, given the serious allegation that a journalist has distorted facts in his reporting. I also consider that the allegation of joining with other journalists to lie repeatedly in a video report meets the threshold of seriousness. Accordingly, I conclude that both meanings are defamatory at common law.”
The fourth and fifth publications were tweets by Saddique in which she alleged that Shah was a corrupt journalist. In her judgment, Justice Steyn, DBE, stated that “Ms Saddique submitted that her intention was simply to share the petition and support her colleague. The tweets of Mr Chaudhary and Mr Khwaja that she quote-tweeted are simply the opinions of others. She said that she did not say the claimant was a corrupt journalist, she merely shared the opinions expressed by others. Her submissions ignored the repetition rule and trespassed into giving inadmissible evidence.” She ruled that it was “obviously defamatory at common law to describe a journalist as corrupt”.
In the sixth publication, Riaz posted a video in which he spoke with a link to the petition. Justice Steyn, DBE, found that the meaning of the words spoken by Riaz was that Shah was “corrupt and has been harming Pakistan by knowingly misleading people through his journalism” and “clearly defamatory at common law”.
Shah was represented by barrister Dean of 5RB Chambers, instructed by Stone White Solicitors, and the defendants represented themselves in person. The case will now proceed to trial.
For determining the defamatory meaning, the judge relied on the historic case of Shakil-ur-Rahman v ARY Network Limited  EWHC 2917 (QB). The judge observed: “I have sought to avoid an over-literal approach but, as Haddon-Cave J observed in Shakil-Ur-Rahman, I have necessarily had to approach the task of ascertaining the meaning of the videos through the filters of, first, a transcript of what was said orally, and secondly, a translation of that transcript. I did not have the benefit of gaining the immediate impression which the words spoken would have had on the hypothetical viewer of the videos, who would have understood Urdu.”