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Libel case against Atlanta Journal-Constitution reinstated

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         GEORGIA         Libel         Oct 26, 2000    

Libel case against Atlanta Journal-Constitution reinstated

  • A Georgia appellate court resuscitated a libel case brought by a martial arts instructor accused of molesting a teenager.

A libel case brought by a tae kwon do instructor against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was reinstated by a Georgia appellate court on Oct. 13. The court held there were serious questions about a reporter’s accuracy and the newspaper was not entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.

After Fulton State court Judge Brenda Cole ruled the reporter’s coverage of the instructor’s criminal charges was protected under the fair report privilege, the Georgia Court of Appeals looked to a detective’s statements to the reporter in addition to police documents. The appellate court then ruled that questions of fact remained about whether the reporter fairly reported the allegations.

Journalist Michael Weiss reported on Aug. 21, 1998 that local police accused Shahriyar Bakhtiarnejad, a martial arts instructor in metro Atlanta, of molesting a 15-year-old student. Weiss obtained copies of the arrest warrants, affidavits and an incident report from the case. In obtaining the arrest warrant, county detective Michael Mirolli swore that “to the best of his knowledge and belief,” Bakhtiarnejad molested the girl.

Before writing the article, Weiss also interviewed Mirolli regarding the allegations. Mirolli warned the reporter that the allegations were based solely on the statements of the alleged victim. Mirolli also advised Weiss not to print anything until after police interviewed Bakhtiarnejad because he did not know if the allegations were true.

When Mirolli spoke with the suspect late that afternoon, he seriously doubted the teenager’s allegations. Mirolli ended the interview and left a voice mail message for Weiss, telling him that the charges were unfounded.

The next day, Mirolli went before a judge to have the warrants withdrawn. However, the article by Weiss quoting the detective had already appeared in the Gwinnett County Extra section of the newspaper. The article claimed Bakhtiarnejad “face[d] charges,” although the instructor was never actually charged in court. Weiss quoted Mirolli’s statements from the arrest warrant affidavit which detailed Bakhtiarnejad’s alleged acts.

The newspaper printed a story on Aug. 22, 1998 detailing the dismissal of charges, but refused Bakhtiarnejad’s demand for a retraction of the initial story. Bakhtiarnejad sued in December 1998, claiming defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The trial court dismissed the case against the newspaper, citing the reporter’s accurate report of the warrants. However, the appellate court ruled there were viable questions about the accuracy of Weiss’ article. The court was concerned that even though Mirolli swore an affidavit stating he believed Bakhtiarnejad had committed the acts, the detective never told Weiss the allegations were true.

The newspaper is preparing a motion for reconsideration to the Court of Appeals with

respect to the decision’s unusually narrow construction of the fair report privilege, said Atlanta Journal-Constitution attorney Peter Canfield.

(Bakhtiarnejad v. Cox Enterprises; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Atlanta) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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