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Opinions of Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

Journalists and the libel trap

By George Sydney Abugri

Most countries' laws on the media exist not to inhibit media freedom, but to protect the rights, freedoms and welfare of citizens. In order to do this, the laws of most countries subject the freedom of the media to some formalities, conditions, restrictions and penalties prescribed by law.

This is done in the interests of democracy, national security and public safety. Other reasons for subjecting media freedom to restrictions include the prevention of crime, preventing the disclosure of lawfully confidential information and maintaining the authority and impartiality of every country's judiciary.

As a result, numerous legal land mines infest the rugged terrain along which the media and journalists operate.

Some of the legally risk-prone laws journalists could easily fall foul of relate to defamation and its two generic variants-libel and slander. Other laws regulating media freedom relate to contempt of court, infringement of the rights of citizens under the law, coverage of issues involving minors, family issues, state secrets, property or copyright and sexual offences.

The laws of most countries guarantee full anonymity to complainants in sexual offence cases: In the UK, legal restriction on identifying complainants or victims in rape cases states that "once an allegation of rape has been made, the victim's name, address, workplace, school or educational establishment, or picture, must NOT be published in his or her life-time, if it is likely to identify him or her."

In cases of sexual intercourse with a mentally handicapped person, indecent assault of children, incest by a man or woman, the law guarantees the same anonymity for the victims. Anonymity for the complainant or victim remains in force "even if the allegation is later, withdrawn".

Of the laws and restrictions which regulate the work of the media, laws relating to libel, defamation and contempt of court, are probably those most dreaded by journalists. Where defamation is in writing or in some other permanent form, it is a libel. Where it is spoken or in some other temporary form, it is slander.

For the sake of doubt, a "publication" is defined as the communicating of an allegation to another person or persons. Thus communicating an allegation to one person, as in the case of a written letter or to millions of people, as in the case of a any form of media, is a publication. It makes no difference in law, whether the medium in which the allegation is published is electronic or print.

A defamatory allegation is defined as an allegation that tends to make right-thinking people think the worst of the claimant, and that would lead people to avoiding the claimant or exposing the claimant to ridicule.

After a three-year hearing, a Fast-Track High Court last Thursday found the Daily Guide guilty of defaming General Secretary, Mr Johnson Asiedu-Nketia and ordered the paper to pay the plaintiff a colossal Ghc250,000 in damages and Ghc 15,000 in costs. The Daily Guide had reported that Mr Asiedu Nketia had used his position as a member of the Board of Directors of the Bui Power Authority to divert building materials meant for the Bui Hydro power project for the construction of private estate in the Ashanti region, an allegation Mr Asiedu-Nketia denied. The Daily Guide is not he first and will in all likelihood not be the last newspaper to fall into the defamation trap. Journalists need to remain constantly aware that in a defamatory publication, even an unnamed claimant who can be identified by other means as the target of the defamatory allegation made in the publication, will be able to sue. Any person who shares the same name as the intended target of the publication can also sue!

Reporters are advised to use the almighty alibi "allegedly" when reporting what they deem to be an act of impropriety. They are, however, also warned that the word "allegedly" does not protect a journalist or medium sued for defamation, although it might help the defendants' case in court.

Journalists can minimise the risk of libel and defamation suits by constantly asking a few simple but essential questions: Do I have the facts? Can I say in all honesty that my report is balanced and fair to all parties concerned? Have I attributed quoted statements in the report to identified and verifiable sources? Will my report contravene any reporting restrictions imposed by law?

The law does not leave journalists dragged to court over their work, without a defence: The law ensures that for any claimant to be able to successfully bring a claim of defamation against a journalist or news organisation, that aggrieved individual must prove that the news medium and/or journalist against whom the claim is brought, did indeed publish defamatory material about the claimant.

Many journalism training institutions these days include Media Law on the course curriculum. While studying Media Law will not make lawyers of journalists, it will equip them with knowledge that will enable them avoid the many legal pitfalls inherent in journalism. Website: www.sydneyabugri.com/Web Email: editing@sydneyabugri.com

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