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Ambassador defamed by strip claims


CANBERRA — Zimbabwe’s outgoing ambassador to Australia has won a defamation case against “an agent of the Mugabe regime” who said she stripped in front of embassy staff.

A Canberra judge has struck out the defence offered by freelance journalist Panganai Reason Wafawarova, who argued his report was true and in the public interest.

The Herald newspaper published the claims made about the ambassador, Jacqueline Zwambila in November 2010, saying she had disrobed in front of three staff during a heated argument.

Stripping naked is a traditional protest to shame an opponent, and the allegation would be seen by some to suggest that Zwambila was uncivilised.

Wafawarova then republished the article on his personal website.

The Australian also published Wafawarova’s claims about the then newly appointed envoy days after The Herald printed them.

An incensed Zwambila launched a lawsuit against The Australian’s publisher, News Limited, and Wafawarova in 2011.

Court papers say Wafawarova was motivated out of malice as an “agent of the Mugabe regime, which opposes (Zwambila) and her party”.

She also claimed damages for The Australian’s “negligent journalism, in that it failed to contact the (ambassador) before publishing the item to attempt to verify such serious allegations about a person of her standing”.

The ambassador was a political activist with Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and was appointed under a power-sharing deal with Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF party. Zwambila first demanded an apology and a retraction, and then took legal action when both the newspaper and Wafawarova ignored her requests.

She sought damages for “the particular shame she suffered, as a Zimbabwean national aware of her country’s cultural values and sexual mores, at being portrayed as she was”.

“The plaintiff has been greatly injured in her credit, reputation, and profession as a diplomat, and has been brought into public scandal, odium and contempt,” a statement of claim filed in court said.

She reached a confidential settlement with The Australian in March 2011. But Wafawarova tried to defend his reporting, arguing the allegations were true, an opinion, fair comment and in the public interest.

He also argued the circumstances of publication meant Zwambila was unlikely to sustain any harm. The case stalled after Wafawarova repeatedly flouted court orders by failing to provide documents relevant to the case.

On Friday Justice Hilary Penfold upheld an application by Zwambila’s lawyers to have his defence struck out.

— Canberra Times

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