Defamation of Character and Social Media
Defamation is the act of harming an individual’s character, reputation, or fame through false and malicious statements.
The internet and social media, while powerful tools for social engagement, have also become a fertile ground for potential defamation. The core elements of online defamation, such as false statements that harm someone’s reputation, are essentially the same as traditional defamation. The major difference lies in the method of publication.
Online defamation occurs when someone’s reputation is tarnished through the dissemination of false information on internet platforms. While this concept is relatively new in the legal landscape of Nigeria, with only a few cases addressing it, other common law jurisdictions have produced numerous legal precedents that serve as persuasive guidance for Nigerian courts.
In Section 373 of the Criminal Code, defamatory matter is matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by any injury to his reputation. Such matter may be expressed in spoken words or in any audible sounds, or in words legibly marked on any substance whatever, or by any sign or object signifying such matter otherwise than by words, and may be expressed either directly or by insinuation or irony.
These actions can occur both physically and online, and they don’t have to be repeated; a single intentional false statement to a third party can still be considered defamation. In essence, the plaintiff must prove that the material in question is defamatory, relates to them, and was communicated to a third party.
Once a case of defamation (libel) has been established the victim is entitled to general damages as compensation for the loss of his reputation and emotional distress.
Additionally, Section 375 of the criminal code states that “any person who publishes any defamatory matter is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year.”
In addition, “any person who publishes any defamatory matter knowing it to be false is liable to imprisonment for two years.”
Types of Defamation
There are two types of defamatory acts recognized under the Nigerian law;
- Libel which is basically written defamation and
- Slander, verbal defamation.
Elements of a Successful Defamation Action
For a claim in defamation to succeed, the plaintiff must successfully prove three crucial elements:
• That the words are false.
• That the words referred to the plaintiff.
• That the words were published to at least one person (third party) other than the plaintiff.
These elements were given recognition in the case of Wala v. FGN (2020).
In certain cases involving slander, where it is not actionable per se, the plaintiff will also have to prove special damages to his person. This means that he has to prove special losses and harm that the defamatory publication must have caused him.
Defenses to Defamation
If a legal action is taken against a publisher of a potentially defamatory post or article, there are certain defenses that may be available to the person being sued:
According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, “Justification’ is defined as an “explanation with supporting data. A maintaining or showing a sufficient reason in court why the defendant did what he is called upon to answer, particularly in an action of libel…”
Essentially, this implies that if a publisher can establish the truth of their statement, they may not be held liable for defamation. See the case of Anyah V. A.N.N. LTD. (1992) NWLR (PT. 247)319 (1992) 7 SCNJ 47
2. Fair Comment
Black’s Law Dictionary defined Fair Comment as “a term used in the law of libel applying to statements made by a writer in an honest belief of their truth, relating to official acts, even though the statements are not true in fact”.
To rely on this defense, a publisher must ensure that their comments are based on accurately presented facts, and the statements must not contain unfound allegations of corrupt or dishonourable intentions unless supported by facts, and must genuinely express the publisher’s opinion. See the case of Okolie v. Marinho (2006) 15 NWLR (PT. 1002) PG.338 PARAS. A-B
Privilege is defined in Black’s law dictionary as “an exemption from liability for the speaking or publishing of defamatory words concerning another, based on the fact that the statement was made in performance of a political, judicial social or personal duty.”
Privilege can either be absolute or conditional.
In such cases, protection is afforded to the speaker or publisher without regard to their intentions or the accuracy of the statement. This protection applies to situations involving judges, witnesses in court proceedings, and statements made during legislative debates.
It is settled law that that an occasion of qualified privilege arises when the person making a publication has a legitimate interest or obligation, whether it is a legal, social, or moral duty, to convey that information to someone who also holds a corresponding interest or duty to receive it. This presence of such an interest or duty negates the presumption that the publisher’s motives were driven by other factors, which is typically assumed in defamation cases, and it grants the occasion a privileged status unless there’s clear evidence of actual or intentional malice. See the case of Uko v. Mbaba 2001 4 NWLR (PT 704) 460 CA
See also: Nigerian cases on Defamation
When posting or commenting online, it is crucial to exercise extreme caution and avoid making careless statements that could be construed as defamation. In this digital age where there is an abundance of online content, it is often challenging to distinguish between what is offensive, morally acceptable, a joke, or a genuine attack.
While an everyday blogger or online enthusiast may perceive their post or comment as harmless humor or a light-hearted jab, the legal perspective often differs, placing a certain level of responsibility on the author and considering how it might impact the subject when read by others. This is a significant challenge in 21st-century internet use and carries far-reaching consequences.
Therefore, it is advisable to thoroughly review potentially sensitive content before posting or reposting to ensure that no one’s reputation is being harmed.
Foluke Babatunde-Lawal is a Law student at the University of Ibadan. She is not only passionate about learning the intricacies of the law but also applying that knowledge to create positive change in society. She quenches her thirst for knowledge by avidly reading books, undertaking various courses and trainings, and actively participating in mentorship programs, all with the aim of becoming a well-rounded and impactful legal professional.