By Christopher Rosana**
Strange! That a man who has wit enough to write a satire should have folly enough to publish it.” These words by Benjamin Franklin ring in my head every moment I have to analyse defamation claims and the nuances of media in the digital age. The requirements for libel have not fundamentally changed for centuries; its principles have happily held sway. Those whose reputations have suffered walk away with their assigned damages – a solatium to their injured reputation. Principles may have remained unchanged, modified to new situations even, but there are corresponding misapprehensions on the meaning of ‘publication’ that have crept into the public mind.
For a successful defamation claim the following conditions must be present (1) the statement must be made to a third party – published; and (2) the statement must lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society. In the second condition, it may be sufficient if the statement exposes the claimant to hatred, ridicule, contempt, or to be shunned.
What amounts to a ‘publication’? On this question rests all the blame for the massive amounts of damages that defendants have to pay. The rise of alternative forms of disseminating information, for instance Twitter, Facebook and their ilk, seems to have altered the understanding of what qualifies as a ‘publication’. In our minds we still picture an old dingy printing press churning away pieces of propaganda but never do we feel convinced that our tweets, blog posts, screenshots are actually ‘publications’.
As a legal term of art, ‘to publish’ is simply to make something known to a third party. To publish is not limited to paper and ink. Whatever form a person utilizes to communicate libelous information would not absolve them in a defamation claim. The libelous information must refer to a living client as you cannot defame the deceased.
The misapprehension leads to defences in the line of ‘It is not us saying it, we are just quoting x’. In Nicholas Biwott v Clays Limited & 5 Others, Bookpoint was held to be responsible for defaming the plaintiff even though they were merely selling a book which it did not author. Therefore, meaning of publication implicates the person even when they are not, technically speaking, the person ‘saying’ what is libelous in the circumstances. In the eyes of the law, if statements are libelous and one disseminates them to another, one must prove the truth of those statements. In the spread of libelous information, the question before the court is not whether the words were actually said but whether the words said are provable as true. When one spreads defamatory information, they are taken to have adopted and endorsed those words as their own.
Thus, sharing a defamatory tweet is publication in the selfsame way a printed newspaper would be. It is curious how we easily describe an online article as ‘published’ but we do not extend this to tweets, and Facebook posts. A common pitfall is when a newspaper publishes the revelations of an anonymous user that are ‘juicy’ but also happen to be defamatory to the person in reference. The defamed claimant would sue the newspaper since those words are taken as its own and since the original source has anonymised their online account, the newspaper will be at pains to prove the claims. In a similar instance with the same facts, you may share the defamatory claims on your Twitter or Facebook thinking that it is not a ‘publication’. There is no safety in numbers as the aggrieved party can choose to sue any one of the defaming defendants as shown in Nicholas Biwott v Clays Limited.
Christopher Rosana is a Legal Assistant at Nation Media Group (Legal Department)