Friday, March 19, 2010

Truth and amnesty.

Posted by Julian Jonker.

I thought I'd get a word in on The Citizen v McBride, a Supreme Court of Appeal judgment handed down at the end of February. David recently wrote about it on this blog, and Pierre de Vos and Robert Brand wrote about it on theirs. I thought this might be a good place to rehearse an argument I am making in a case note. Someone once said that journalism is the first draft of history, so why not use law blogs as the first draft of legal scholarship? I'll try to be brief and leave the details for the note.

I'll recall the facts of the case and give some of the more racy context for interest's sake. Robert McBride had gained some notoriety as a member of the ANC's armed wing in the late 80s, most notably for a bombing of Magoo's Bar in Durban, an act which resulted in 3 deaths and many injuries, all civilian. McBride was arrested for this and sentenced to death, but was released during the early 90s as a prerequisite of the ANC's involvement in negotiations (the tit for tat was that Barend Strydom, the infamous 'Wit Wolf,' also had to be released).

McBride subsequently appeared before the TRC's Amnesty Committee. As an aside, his appearance there left a lot to be desired - when a TRC Commissioner asked the daughter of one of the victims whether she was prepared to forgive McBride at any point during his testimony, she said something to the effect of: 'The only time I was ready to forgive McBride was when I walked through the door at the beginning of this hearing.' But forgiveness wasn't a requirement of the amnesty process, and so McBride received amnesty for the Magoo's Bar bombing.

Fast forward to 2003. McBride had been a Director in the Department of Foreign Affairs since democracy, and was now about to be appointed to the position of Ekhuruleni Metro Police Chief. Enter The Citizen newspaper, who clearly did not like this. They published a series of articles and editorials in which they made it known that McBride was unfit for the position. These articles included juicy statements like the following:

'Robert McBride's candidacy for the post of Ekhuruleni Metro Police Chief is indicative of the ANC's attitude to crime. They can't be serious. He is blatantly unsuited, unless his backers support the dubious philosophy: set a criminal to catch a criminal.'

Here's another:

'If the ANC regards Robert McBride as a hero of the struggle, it should erect a statue of him - perhaps standing majestically over the mangled remains of the women he slaughtered. He should most certainly not be made a policeman.'

McBride sued for defamation. The central defamatory statement made in all the publications was that McBride is a murderer. (There were other defamatory statements aplenty, but ultimately they were all parasitic upon this one.) Is this actionable? The key question was whether it is true to say that McBride is a murderer. If it was, the statement would fall under the protection of the classic defence of truth and public benefit.

Why would such a statement not be true? McBride had been convicted on three counts of murder, after all. Yet the Supreme Court of Appeal held that the statement was in fact false, on the basis that McBride had received amnesty for the murders. The effect of such a grant of amnesty is far reaching. Section 20(10) of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995 (I'll call it 'the Reconciliation Act') says that 'the conviction shall be deemed to be expunged from all official documents or records and the conviction shall for all purposes, including the application of any Act of Parliament or any other law, be deemed not to have taken place.' That's strong language, and on this basis Streicher JA, who wrote the majority judgment, ruled that 'once amnesty had been granted to [McBride] he could no longer be branded a criminal and a murderer in respect of which such amnesty had been granted.'

But Streicher made it clear that he did not mean the past had been erased. In fact he wrote explicitly: 'It is a fact that [McBride] placed the bomb that killed a number of people and it is a fact that he was convicted of the murder of those people. The amnesty granted to the respondent could not obliterate those facts or erase them from the historical record...' Rather, the point is that the amnesty erases McBride's legal status as a murderer.

Now, I happen to think the decision is bizarre, but I've found it difficult to pinpoint why exactly it is wrong in law. I sympathize with the dissenting judgment of Mthiyane JA, which points out that 'murderer' is 'a conventional description in common parlance of someone who perpetrates such acts.' Yet what could 'such acts' be other than acts of murder, and how are we to understand 'murder' if not by its legal description? The Oxford English Dictionary notes that 'murder' has a primary legal sense ('criminal homocide') and a secondary moral sense 'the action of killing or causing destruction of life, regarded as wicked and morally reprehensible irrespective of its legality', my emphasis). All the same, there are good policy reasons for taking the word in its primary legal sense. The stigma created by branding a person a criminal is great, and in our society can lead to acts of violence. The law has a monopoly on deciding the guilt or innocence of a person, and we should protect this. I do not think that the law should condone the anti-abortion protestor, for example, who calls a doctor who has performed a lawful abortion a 'murderer.'

For this reason, amongst others, I do not think it is wise to rely on the argument that 'murderer' is not only a legal description, though ultimately I agree with it. Consider the 12 year old who unlawfully and intentionally kills another, and is acquitted for lack of criminal capacity. The conduct of the child falls under the description of murder. Should we not say that the child has been excused for lack of capacity, but is still a murderer (that is, someone who has committed a murder)?

The real problem with this line of argument is that it involves too much semantic hairsplitting. We should prefer a more secure doctrinal or policy argument. Here's one. Firstly, let's distinguish between (a) a conviction for the crime of murder, and (b) the juristic fact of murder upon which such a conviction rests upon such a fact. The conviction (a) is established by the decision of a court. The fact (b) is established by the requirements of the crime being present. It's clear that the two are related but may exist independently of each other. On the one hand, it may be that someone has committed a deed that falls under the legal description of murder but a conviction has not yet been secured. It would be true to call the doer of the deed a murderer, for she has committed a murder. On the other hand, we know that a conviction might be secured but it turns out much later (after examining DNA evidence, for example), that the convicted person did not commit the murder. It would be false to call such a person a murderer, even while she languishes in jail. Indeed, in a civil trial one may prove (on the balance of probabilities) that a person is a murderer, even in the absence of a conviction.

My second contention is that s 20(10) affects (a) the conviction, but not (b) the juristic fact upon which it rests. If this is correct, it follows that s 20(10), contrary to Streicher JA's decision, has no effect upon the truth value of the statement 'McBride is a murderer.'

Is my second contention correct? Let's look at the provision again. It says that when amnesty is granted in respect of a crime for which a conviction has been secured, 'the conviction shall be deemed to be expunged from all official documents or records and the conviction shall for all purposes, including the application of any Act of Parliament or any other law, be deemed not to have taken place.' A literal reading of the subsection clearly supports my contention. At no point does the subsection, or the rest of the section for that matter, say that it is the juristic fact upon which the conviction rests or the legal description of the act for which the conviction was secured which is affected.

Although there is no ambiguity in the provision, and thus no need to look beyond its literal language, a purposive interpretation would simply bolster my argument. In Du Toit v Minister for Safety and Security the Constitutional Court had to interpret the same section in order to determine its retrospective effect. Langa CJ, writing a unanimous judgment, held that the section should be read restrictively given that the TRC granted amnesty as a means to reveal the truth. Therefore we should not think that amnesty was given for the absolute benefit of perpetrators of past human rights violations. Indeed, the purpose of the TRC was disclosure, not interment of the past.

Furthermore, we now all know that whenever a court interprets legislation it is obliged by s 39(2) of the Constitution to promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights. This is another reason to think that s 20(10) only affects convictions and not the legal descriptions of the underlying acts. Not only because such a reading gives effect to the right to freedom of expression, but because of the s 34 right to have any justiciable dispute resolved by a court or 'another independent or impartial tribunal or forum.' It may be that the TRC is such a forum, but we must remember that s 166 of the Constitution vests judicial authority in the courts, and that the Reconciliation Act did not empower the TRC to decide upon the guilt and innocence of those who appeared before it. Yet Streicher JA's interpretation of s 20(10), by erasing not only the conviction but the legal description of McBride's acts, has the consequence that a grant of amnesty by the TRC also removed the guilt of the amnesty applicant. Thus Streicher JA's interpretation must be wrong.

For those reasons, I think that the Citizen's defence of truth and public benefit should have succeeded. I do also wonder whether The Citizen might have pleaded media privilege (in other words, the National Media v Bogoshi defence), or for that matter tried to rebut the presumption of fault on the basis that they had made a mistake of law (that is, they had mistaken the effect of s 20(10) of the Reconciliation Act). Neither of these are sure-fire strategies though, given that Bogoshi seems to create liability in defamation for negligent defamatory statements by the media.

I'd be interested to know what anyone else thinks.