LONDON: Geo TV and The News International’s London reporter Murtaza Ali Shah and his journalist brother have won a major defamation case at the UK High Court over false and malicious allegations made about them on social media sites, including WhatsApp.
In one of the first few cases in Britain relating to defamation and slander by the use of social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, Twitter and fake photo-shopped news, the UK High Court’s Senior Judge Mrs Justice Collins Rice ruled that Murtaza Ali Shah (reporter for Geo News/The News and Daily Jang from London) and Syed Mujtaba Ali Shah (HUM TV’s London reporter) were defamed by England and Wales solicitor Ajaz Ahmed, his law firm Pure Legal Solicitors and Raja Usman Arshad, son of Raja Arshad who has been convicted of killing British Pakistani national Barrister Fahad Malik.
Mrs Justice Collins Rice also awarded legal costs and £75,000 in damages to both Murtaza Ali Shah and Mujtaba Ali Shah. The defendants had several opportunities to settle the case out-of-court through negotiations – without going on the trial – but they chose to abuse the court process by refusing to engage for nearly three years.
The legal battle started after a press conference held in London on January 5, 2019 by the law firm Pure Legal Solicitors, its director and solicitor Ajaz Ahmed and Raja Usman Arshad concerning the 2016 murder in Islamabad of British-Pakistani Barrister Fahad Malik. At the start of the press conference on January 5, a group of around two dozen protestors disrupted the press conference making accusations against Raja Usman Arshad and the law firm for attempting to cover up the murder of Fahad Malik and providing a fig leaf to the murder accused Raja Arshad.
In the following days, Ajaz Ahmed and Raja Usman used WhatsApp and social media platforms to make several patently false, defamatory and serious allegations against the journalists accusing them of orchestrating the attack on behalf of Jawad Sohrab Malik, the brother of Fahad Malik. Several other allegations were also made in the dangerous campaign.
The defamatory press release, which was disseminated in both English and Urdu, alleged that the two journalists were the ringleaders of violent disorder at the Central London press conference organised by Raja Usman Arshad for his father who was in Adiala Jail at that time. It was further alleged that the journalists disrupted and hijacked the press conference and violently assaulted, harassed and intimidated people who attended. None of this was true but as a result of these false and abhorrent allegations, the journalists, in particular Murtaza Ali Shah, were attacked and harm was caused to them and their family members.
The journalists immediately instructed lawyers who sent pre-action letters and then issued proceedings at the Royal Courts of Justice on January 6, 2020.
At the start of the case, Ajaz Ahmed, Raja Usman Arshad and Merseyside-based Pure Legal Solicitors Limited jointly defended the case through solicitors’ firm Kingswell Watts Solicitors who submitted a defence on behalf of their clients. Lawyers for the journalists made an application to strike out the defences of truth, honest opinion and statement on a matter of public Interest on the grounds they were defectively pleaded and were successful. The defendants then filed a further amended defence but the journalists’ lawyers applied for parts of the amended defence to be struck out for non-compliance with the rules and were successful again.
Raja Usman Arshad stopped engaging with the London High Court orders and procedures when he returned to Pakistan and Kingswell Watts Solicitors also did not respond as the case progressed.
At one stage during the proceedings, High Court Judge Mr Justice Nicklin, who is in charge of defamation cases at the High Court, got involved and made an order in which he stated: “There appears to be a history of non-compliance and non-engagement by the defendants. If that continues, they will find that sanctions will be imposed to their disadvantage.”
At the trial before High Court Judge Mrs Justice Collins Rice, the journalists’ lawyers made further applications seeking strike out of the complete defence and a debarring order, on which they were successful. Mrs Justice Collins Rice also ruled that the two claimants were defamed. The Honourable judge said: “I am satisfied on the basis of my preliminary and provisional views that what is pleaded by the claimants on natural and ordinary meaning is neither ‘wildly extravagant and impossible’, nor ‘clearly not defamatory in their tendency’ given the accusations of violence.” The judge found that the test for serious harm to reputation had been met.
The judge condemned the conduct of Ajaz Ahmed, Pure Legal Solicitors and Raja Usman Arshad as “oppressive” and full of “consistent failures”. The Honourable judge ruled: “The defendants’ conduct of this litigation has been characterised by persistent failure to engage properly and fairly with rules of procedure, and by multiple and serious failures to comply with the orders and directions of the court. The defendants have been given repeated opportunities to re-establish their participation in the litigation on a satisfactory footing and to prepare for a fair trial of the claim, but have not acknowledged and taken those opportunities. Nor have they offered any good reason for failing to do so. They have been given clear and repeated warnings of the jeopardy that places them in.”
“This course of conduct has been wasteful of court time and public resources, and wholly unfair to the claimants. It has denied them the opportunity to make out their case for vindication in a timely manner. The effect on the claimants is therefore highly prejudicial. It has also not only escalated the cost of these proceedings in an unwarranted manner, but kept the claimants out of funds to which they are clearly entitled by the order. I am satisfied that the claimants’ case is properly pleaded.”
Ajaz Ahmed and Pure Legal Solicitors had applied at the last minute to vacate the trial. Mr Ahmed’s son, Adam Ahmed, gave a written statement, in which he suggested an associate of his father had given his father illegal substances which have had a serious consequence for his mental health and interfered with his compliance with the court orders. Adam Ahmed claimed that his father had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of 14 x 200mg ibuprofen with intent to end his life and was at the Royal Blackburn Hospital in the Mental Health Urgent Assessment Centre.
The journalists’ lawyers challenged the evidence. Mrs Justice Collins Rice, whilst expressing sympathy for Ajaz Ahmed, declined the application as the evidence before her was not satisfactory.
Ajaz Ahmed, Raja Usman Arshad and Pure Legal Solicitors did not appeal the ruling by Mrs Justice Collins Rice made in July 2022. As a result, the lawyers for the journalists obtained charging orders on two properties, in which Ajaz Ahmed had an interest. The lawyers will be applying separately for recovery of legal costs which have already run into 6 figures. They will also be seeking orders for sale so that the properties can be sold and the equity released to pay towards the damages and legal costs.
The claimants were represented initially by Counsel William Bennett KC, who represented Duke of Sussex Prince Harry in his successful claim against Mail on Sunday in early 2021, and then Counsel David Lemer who achieved the successful outcome for Shahs.
Barrister Mr David Lemer who represented the two journalists at the trial said: “I am glad that Murtaza Ali Shah and Mujtaba Ali Shah have been able to succeed in their claims for defamation and that these long-standing proceedings have been brought to an end.”
The journalists welcomed the court decision, saying: “We stand vindicated and we are thankful to our legal team, Stone White Solicitors, Counsel William Bennett KC and Counsel David Lemer and to the court for upholding the truth.
We faced malicious and false allegations and it took us over three years to get justice but we continued to fight the case to establish that there should be no place and tolerance for defamation of any kind. Our lives were put at risk through these allegations.”
They said in a statement: “This case highlights the harassment, false allegations and threats that journalists face on a daily basis simply for doing their job. Recent events globally have highlighted the personal risk that journalists place themselves in whilst they play a critical role in promoting democracy by maintaining the free flow of information. Attempts to silence journalists with threats, attacks and in some cases assassinations continue at an alarming rate, especially with the rise of social media.”
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