Cobus Kellermann has filed criminal defamation charges against Alec Hogg, editor and owner of BizNews, following the publication of a series of allegedly defamatory articles in 2015, written by Hogg and carried on Hogg’s website BizNews and Fin24.
These articles labelled Kellermann and his partner David Cosgrove as criminals and the kingpins behind the so-called Belvedere scheme, which was labelled a “blatantly fraudulent Ponzi scheme” of between R10 billion and R200 billion.
Kellermann claims the articles were totally untrue – supported by several regulators terminating investigations – and resulted in him losing his job and business, the prospects of ever working in the financial services industry again and the respect of his peers.
Hogg, who was the founder of Moneyweb, said in response he was unaware of the criminal complaint but stated that he would defend any charges.
There have not been many criminal defamation cases in South Africa, although in at least one conviction in 2008 an accused received a suspended sentence. As recently as 2015 there was also a debate around decriminalising defamation as it may be unconstitutional.
Criminal defamation requires the state to prove that the person so charged made the defamatory statement intentionally and with the object of maliciously damaging another person’s reputation.
The criminal charges against Hogg were filed in Johannesburg. In the affidavit, Kellermann states that he filed the charges against Hogg as the owner and/or editor of the website Biznews.com. Kellerman goes on to detail the false allegations he says Hogg made in a series of articles about him.
Kellermann has also filed a similar complaint against Esmaré Weideman, who at the time was CEO of Media 24. Media 24’s news websites, news24.com and fin24.com had republished Hogg’s articles. In his affidavit of complaint against Weideman, Kellerman wrongly alleges she was the editor of these websites.
Kellermann does not allege that Weideman had any personal knowledge or involvement in the republication of Hogg’s articles or the editorial decisions of the news websites. Weideman said she was unaware of the complaint but would defend the matter.
From R30 million to R900 million
In separate proceedings, Kellerman instituted a civil claim for damages in 2018 against various media houses and Hogg in his personal capacity.
He originally claimed R30 million for general damages to his reputation from Media24, Blackstar TV (Arena), Africa Business News (CNBC Africa), as well as Hogg and his media company Aurelius Media, which owns BizNews.
Kellermann has now upped the ante by seeking to amend his particulars of the case, by adding further specific claims for patrimonial losses, being amounts which he claims he can prove and quantify, relating to his loss of earnings and future earnings.
If a court approves the amendment application, the total claims for damages will increase from R30 million to nearly R900 million.
Apart from Arena, all the publishers confirmed to Moneyweb that they would oppose the applications to increase the damages sought. At the time of publication, Arena had not responded.
The defamation case stems from the publication of various articles in 2015 claiming Belvedere was a massive Ponzi scheme of up to R200 billion. The articles were largely based on those US-based David Marchant posted on his blog, OffshoreAlert.
Kellermann and Cosgrove were cited as the kingpins of the scheme, which spurred on regulators in Guernsey, South Africa and Mauritius to initiate investigations.
The Mauritian regulator initiated an investigation in 2015 and closed several of Belvedere’s companies and revoked its management license. Cosgrove was also disqualified from holding a position as an officer or director. No steps were taken against Kellermann.*
Kellermann filed his motion to amend the damages in the defamation cases after an actuarial report, attached to the various applications, found that his loss of historical and future income amounts to $10 945 356. Kellermann now claims this amount in rands from the media groups.
|Previous damages claim in terms of the original defamation applications.||Proposed new damages|
|Alec Hogg||R5 million||R187 918 036|
|Aurelius Media (BizNews)||R5 million||R187 918 036|
|Blackstar TV (Arena)||R5 million||R166 180 340|
|Media24||R10 million||R166 180 340|
|Africa Business News (CNBC Africa)||R5 million||R187 918 036|
|R30 million||R896 114 788|
Media groups to oppose
The media groups all indicated they would oppose the application.
Hogg said: “Mr Kellerman has attempted to introduce a new claim – for patrimonial loss – in his existing defamation claim against me and Aurelius Media. We have objected to this attempt on the basis that such a claim (which I deny exists) has prescribed. Mr Kellerman will now have to apply to court if he wants to try to introduce this claim – which I will oppose.”
Ishmet Davidson, CEO of Media24, also acknowledged Kellermann’s application to amend the claim and said the company had instructed its lawyers to oppose the proposed amendment. He also said although Media24 and Weideman were unaware of the charge of criminal defamation: “Media24 will, if need be, defend the matter accordingly.”
Roberta Naicker, MD of African Business News (ABN), said the case is sub judice, but that Kellermann has on two occasions filed a notice of intention to amend the claimed amounts, to which ABN objected. She added that the period for such applications has expired. “As such, the pleadings have not been amended as per your [Moneyweb’s] enquiry, nor is there even a pending attempt to do so. Therefore, Mr Kellerman’s claim remains as originally pleaded.”
In the affidavits filed with the criminal defamation charges, Kellermann also described that apart from him suffering significant financial loss, the subsequent media frenzy caused him to fear for the safety of his family.
“Journalists, acting on the information contained in the articles, swamped my home. They ‘camped’ outside my driveway. I literally could not enter or exit the front gate.
“Cars were parked across my driveway. Cameras and microphones were everywhere.
“My wife felt very unsafe and overwhelmed. I felt like my whole reputation and career was going to be reduced to a lie in bold print.
“I could hardly leave the house. The kitchen was dangerous territory too as I could see journalists from outside the gate from the kitchen and vice versa. I became paranoid wondering if the gate was high enough to keep them out.
“I closed all curtains and blinds and kept the phone at hand, not to pick it up but to phone the police should one of the journalists enter the property. I spent most of my time confined to my bedroom with the lights off. My family’s safety was one of my biggest concerns. Except for what they had to go through, perhaps the worst moment was seeing my innocent wife and child exposed in the media.”
- After the publication of this article, it was amended to reflect that the Mauritian regulator did in fact, take steps against the Belvedere group of companies and related individuals after 2015. The previous version stated that no steps were taken after 2015.