How Twitter smear earned Tony 'Smitta' Mochama Sh9 million
One sunny September weekend day in 2014, Pulse columnist Tony Mochama (popularly known as Smitta Smitten) went for a poetry afternoon meeting at a house in Spring Valley that would change his life.
The house belonged to Professor Wambui Mwangi, who wasn’t present for the meeting of 12 poets (including Kwame Dawes, the prominent African-American poet). Local poet Clifton Gachagua had extended the e-mail invite, and asked Smitta to come with drinks (but not mayengs).
Tony arrived in the company of arts enthusiast and renowned human rights activist Wanjeri Nderu-Musembi at about 2pm, the plan being to do the meeting then proceed to the Storymoja Lit Fest at the National Museum where Tony was on a presentation panel.
Upon landing at the Loresho residence, Tony was asked for Sh6,000 by poet Michael Onsando for pizza delivery; money he lent him since Onsando claimed he had only ‘foreign money’ on him.
Tony and Wanjeri, who had brought a bottle of Smirnoff (quarter) and half Captain Morgan’s rum found they were the only ones who had BYOB’d, but shared their drinks with other poets.
When the meeting ended at 3pm, a picture of the group (including a smiling Shailja Patel) was taken.
Patel then started to market a copy of her book of poetry to the gathered poets.
Shailja then is said to have yelled at Tony not to hug her, shrieking “back off, I’ve been hugged enough for today,” and a bemused Tony laughed and shook his head.
After he left the poetry meeting at about 3pm, Tony went to Storymoja for a panel (alongside then Phoenix MD John Mwazemba and Dr Auma Obama, who is an author herself).
Come the following Monday and Tony was shocked to find that the house owner, Wambui, was waging a bitter smear campaign on Twitter, targeting his employer, literary sponsors like Michaela Wrong, publishers, PEN International, Binyavanga’s Kwani Trust and even fans of his Pulse column, with Wambui tweeting: "When you smile at him (Smitta), do you know you are idolising a sexual molester?"
Apparently, the evening after the poetry meeting, Wambui had been told by Shailja Patel that Tony Mochama had sexually assaulted her, hence the Tweet that was re-tweeted thousands of times.
Later in court, Patel would say she waited for everyone to leave before making her claims because she "wanted the meeting to end with dignity."
Wambui would say in court that Patel didn’t push Smitta away during the supposed assault because "Shailja has a big heart" and was "scared he (Smitta) may fall and hurt himself."
She didn’t explain her smiling in the group picture, taken ‘post-assault’; but she did tell the court that she reported the matter five days into the smear campaign because she was "consulting with a board of prominent feminists."
Lady Magistrate A M Obura said a learned person like Professor Wambui ought to know better than make reckless, defamatory statements and tweets (of incidents she didn’t witness).
She also found fault with Patel’s public attempts to replace due process of law with the kangaroos of social media.
The OCPD in Gigiri’s lady officer Julianna Wanyama had concluded their claims were baseless and false.
The DPP’s office had arrived at the conclusion that they were an "after-thought" you can’t take to court.
The court, in the case where Tony Mochama had sued for defamation, found them to be malicious.
"Reputation is an important part of dignity for any individual," the Court said, "and guides society on whom to employ, who to give work to, whom to promote, socialise with, do business or vote for. Once besmirched by an unfounded allegation in a national newspaper (Smitta was referred to as ‘alleged rapist’ in The Star) or on TV (the defendants went on Larry Madowo’s The Trend at the time), a career can be damaged, and a reputation forever ruined."
The Court issued a mandatory injunction against Patel and Wambui, noting they had shown no remorse and were likely to continue tweeting falsehoods if not stopped by the Court.
Tony was then awarded Sh8 million both as vindication of his innocence to the public, and a ‘fair and reasonable consolation for the wrong done.’
The defendants were slapped with a Sh1 million exemplary and punitive damages, and ordered to pay the cost of the suit to Smitta’s lawyer, Felix Mutua of Sichangi and Company Advocates.
They were also given 14 days to issue Tony with a full and written apology.