More than a year earlier, the British newspaper Mail released a report on Sunday claiming that Shehbaz Sharif had looted and laundered aid money from the UK government when he was Punjab’s chief minister. Now, with substantial facts in court, it would have to prove the assertions or face losing the lawsuit.
Although defamation cases in the UK, particularly for this publisher, are hardly an unusual phenomenon, in Pakistan the case is seen as a crucial one that will ascertain the guilt or innocence of Shehbaz Sharif, who is currently in custody and facing a reference to NAB corruption.
As senior PTI officials said it reinforced their beliefs about his suspected corruption, the storey was used to politically hurt Mr Sharif. Before they have triple-checked, British newspapers will not publish anything. They risk being sued, unlike in other locations. Shafqat Mahmood had tweeted when it came out in 2019, the Sharifs did not sue daily mail because they know they would lose and the fines will be in millions of pounds.
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Contrary to this statement, in January 2020, Mr Sharif lodged a defamation suit against the “grotesque allegation,” seeking a withdrawal, damages and an apology.
A year after the lawsuit, at a preliminary hearing last week, Justice Matthew Nicklin heard the claims of both parties to determine the meaning of the terms in the report. This ‘sense hearing’ is a comparatively recent phenomenon in English courts and is performed prior to the trial to spare both sides time and expenses. At this point, the judge decides how a ‘ordinary fair reader’ will interpret the defamatory terms.
Outcome will either exonerate Shehbaz or give the govt more political ammunition
The judge found in this particular case that the report meant that Mr Sharif was guilty of some very serious offences. Now the newspaper has the uphill challenge of significantly proving these offences to be real.
While the meaning of the hearing is by no means a definitive ruling on the defamation lawsuit itself, it is a crucial move in the litigation as it sets out the defence mechanism that the publisher will use. In order to effectively sue the Mail on Sunday for slander, Mr. Sharif’s attorneys will have to show that the report is recognisable against him first; second, that the article suggests that he is accused of stealing tens of millions from DFID and smuggling it to the UK; third, that Associated Papers Limited published the article and finally that its publishing caused or is likely to damage the credibility of DFID
However, the Mail on Sunday will use the truth shield to justify the publishing of the defamatory declaration. The defendant does not have to prove that any word he or she published was real, but has to determine the “essential” or “substantial” reality of the sting of the libel,” according to the present law and as established in the case of Chase v News Group Newspapers Ltd.”
Unfortunately for the newspaper, Justice Nicklin held that Mr. Sharif’s charges are clear, and that there is no reason to cause an average reader to think otherwise about his guilt.
The publication must now show that it is significantly accurate that, as claimed, Mr. Sharif was a party to and the key source of money laundering to the sum of tens of millions of pounds covering his embezzlement earnings whilst he was the chief minister, and that funds from a DFID grant payment were included in the public money.
British law also notes that it is not a remedy for the defendant to claim that he or she merely repeated what someone else said, known as the “repetition rule,” for an action for defamation.
Since it would have to provide facts to substantiate its claims, this makes the publication’s task more difficult.
Proving this would not be a challenging job, according to transparency advisor Shahzad Akbar. “This can all be substantiated. “In this case, the standard of evidence is higher than in a civil case and lower than in a criminal case,” he told Dawn.
Mr Akbar added that there is ample evidence in the reference filed against Mr Sharif in the form of ‘TTs, cheques, admissions on the record.’
Since to substantiate the arguments it will have to include evidence, this makes the role of the publisher more challenging.
According to accountability advisor Shahzad Akbar, proving this will not be a difficult task. None of this should be substantiated. “The standard of evidence in this case is higher than in a civil case and lower than in a criminal case,” he said to Dawn.
Mr Akbar added that in the reference filed against Mr Sharif, there is ample evidence in the form of ‘TTs, cheques, admissions on the record.’
The coming days promise to be fascinating, as the result would either exonerate Mr Sharif and damage the transparency argument of the government, or provide them with more political ammo.