Courts reporter for The Canberra Times.
The former Zimbabwean ambassador has dedicated her victory in a defamation case against a freelance journalist to all women in politics.
On Friday afternoon, the ACT Supreme Court ordered Panganai Reason Wafawarova, to pay $180,000 in damages to Jacqueline Zwambila after an article he wrote wrongly alleged she had stripped in front of embassy staff.
Justice Hilary Penfold awarded Ms Zwambila $160,000 as general damages and $20,000 as aggravated damages.
Justice Penfold said the article would have damaged Ms Zwambila’s reputation through an alleged failure to conduct herself properly in her workplace, and created doubts about her “sexual and other morality”.
“I am satisfied that the defamatory article would have damaged the plaintiff’s reputation among many members of the Zimbabwean community who read the article but who had no personal knowledge of the plaintiff,” Justice Penfold wrote in the judgment.
“I also accept that the allegation against her may have been particularly hurtful in the context of Zimbabwean values and attitudes.”
Zimbabwean state-run newspaper The Herald published the claims about the then newly appointed envoy in November 2010, falsely saying she had disrobed in front of three staff during a heated argument.
Some regard stripping as a traditional protest to shame an opponent.
The allegation could be seen to suggest that Ms Zwambila was uncivilised and not fit to represent her country abroad.
Ms Zwambila was a political activist with Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and was appointed ambassador under a power-sharing deal with Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.
She claimed the article had been fabricated in order to undermine her position.
The win is the second for Ms Zwambila, after News Limited – which also published Wafawarova’s claims in The Australian – agreed to a confidential settlement, understood to be worth tens of thousands of dollars, in March 2011.
Mr Wafawarova unsuccessfully fought the lawsuit, claiming that he did not write the story, the allegations were true, an opinion, fair comment, and in the public interest.
Outside court, Ms Zwambila said the lawsuit had not been about money, “but the principle of right and wrong”.
Ms Zwambila said it was a win for all women in politics, from Australia right back to Zimbabwe.
“I’m lucky because I could come to a court where there is respect for the rule of law. This is justice at play,” she said.
“In my country there is nothing like that, there is no way I could have taken this anywhere.
“I’m lucky because [I only suffered] a stroke of a pen, my sisters in Zimbabwe they have been raped, maimed, and suffered all sorts of things and they can’t even go to a court, so this is for them.”
In her judgment, Justice Penfold noted that Ms Zwambila had originally sought a retraction and apology, a request Mr Wafawarova continues to ignore.
The judge said this “refusal to take responsibility for the defamatory article, and his repeated attempts to justify his failure to apologise or retract, have been distressing to the plaintiff and have increased the harm done to her by the defendant’s conduct”.
“Certainly it is true that the defendant has at no stage made any attempt to make amends or otherwise to settle the matter. Instead, as noted, he has repeatedly denied responsibility for the publication and asserted that accordingly he has nothing to apologise for and nothing to retract.”
Justice Penfold also noted that Ms Zwambila was likely to struggle to recover the costs awarded in her favour.