The High court has dismissed an application by Monitor Publications Limited (MPL) to halt the hearing of a defamation suit filed by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni against the newspaper in 2021.
In his ruling delivered today Wednesday, civil division High court judge Musa Ssekaana, says the suit will proceed before him to its logical conclusion, arguing that it's the court’s power to exercise discretion to stay court proceedings before it can be exercised judicially and in the public interest.
“…the same should not be used to cause delay of hearings or inconvenience to the other party or result into public mischief,” he said.
The application by MPL arises from a suit Museveni filed through his lawyers of K&K Advocates led by his son-in-law, Edwin Karugire. Museveni jointly sued the editor-in-chief, Daily Monitor newspaper, and Monitor Publications Limited for allegedly writing and publishing an article in which they claimed that Museveni and his inner circle had received COVID-19 jabs way ahead of any other Ugandans.
The article titled “Museveni ‘inner circle’ secretly given COVID-19 jabs – US paper” quoted a story published by The Wall Street Journal, which stated that, “People close to President Museveni have reportedly received jabs of China Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine months ahead of health workers and vulnerable groups.”
By the time of publishing the said article, Uganda was still awaiting the arrival of more than 800,000 COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccines. In his application, Museveni argued that he had dedicated over 50 years of his life to the liberation and emancipation of Uganda and Africa - to which he has received abundant recognition for his exceptional leadership role in the empowerment of Ugandans and Africans and therefore people close to him wouldn't secretly get vaccines before the citizens.
Museveni noted that the article was maliciously and without due care, published and placed on the same page below a factual story, “China gives Uganda 300,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine,” with his photograph and a visiting Chinese official.
According to Museveni, this was meant to give more credence to the false allegations by the publication. He also argued that although Daily Monitor contacted his then press secretary Don Innocent Wanyama and Health ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyona who dismissed the claims as false, they still went ahead and published the alleged defamatory story.
Museveni notes that the article presented him as a schemer and conspirator who has engaged himself in dishonest activities of influence peddling and nepotism before the right-thinking members of the society who had started shunning him.
“It was understood to mean that the plaintiff has abdicated his duties and obligations to frontline health workers fighting COVID-19 and other groups that are vulnerable to the pandemic. The plaintiff cannot be trusted with the high office of the President of the Republic of Uganda,” argued Museveni’s lawyers.
To prove this, the lawyers attached evidence from dozens of people who attacked, abused, and criticized Museveni on various social media platforms, which he argued was purely calculated by Monitor Publications Limited to make money and sales.
He asked the court to issue seven orders including one compelling Daily Monitor to pull down the said article from its website and publish an apology on all its platforms with the same prominence as the offending article and posts and with wordings agreed to by him in advance.
However, when the matter came up for mention before justice Ssekaana mid-this year, MPL through its lawyers James Nangwala and Mugweri Nangwala informed court that they had filed a petition before the Constitutional court raising issues about the constitutionality of Museveni's suit.
This included whether a serving president can file proceedings in court and whether in such proceedings the parties can be afforded equal opportunity as provided in the Constitution, which bars a court from granting any remedies in favour of the opposite litigant against a serving president who enjoys the immunity of not being sued.
But in his ruling, Ssekaana notes that where a party to the proceedings before a court of law petitions the Constitutional court to determine some questions, it doesn't automatically follow that the court has to stay proceedings pending determination of the questions.
"In such a case the issue of whether or not to stop the proceedings pending the determination of the petition appears to be left to the discretion of either the trial court or the Constitutional court. The defendant’s counsel's argument that the filing of a constitutional petition should result in an automatic stay of proceedings in the lower court would be abused by lawyers or litigants who intend to frustrate the hearing," said Ssekaana.
He cited a judgment made by the Constitutional court justices in 2012 in a case filed by Geoffrey Kazinda, the former accountant in the Office of the Prime Minister where similar reasoning was given.
“If it were otherwise, then every litigant trying to delay proceedings would rush and file proceedings in the Constitutional court. This would heavily clog not only the Constitutional court where the petitions would be filed but also the High court because the cases before it would be brought to a halt and yet filings continue daily,” he added.
He dismissed the application and ordered that the court shall proceed to set a date for hearing Museveni's suit. The parties had earlier been sent for an out-of-court settlement, but Monitor returned to High court, saying that they had filed a Constitutional petition and asked the court to stay the proceedings.