Comment and Analysis

Ten things about defamation

Mail & Guardian Correspondent

The Law of South Africa dictionary defines defamation as a statement that "has the effect of injuring a plaintiff's reputation".

Cartoonist Jonathan 'Zapiro' Shapiro. (David Harrison, M&G)

1. Last week President Jacob Zuma dropped his four-year-old lawsuit against cartoonist Zapiro and Avusa Media, publisher of the Sunday Times, for Zapiro's cartoon in which he showed Zuma preparing to rape Lady Justice. Zuma had originally asked for R5-million in damages from Avusa and R1-million from then-editor Mondli Makhanya. The damages claim was reduced to R100 000 shortly before the court date arrived and then, on the eve of the case coming to court, the president withdrew it. He said he did not want to contribute to "limiting the public exercise of free speech".

2. The Law of South Africa dictionary defines defamation as a statement that "has the effect of injuring a plaintiff's reputation. A plaintiff's reputation is injured if the statement tends to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society."

3. Furthermore, it does not matter if the statement is true or untrue: "The defamatory nature of a statement is not dependent on its falsity."

4. In the United States, someone suing on the grounds of libel has to prove the statement is untrue and caused harm. In the case of celebrities, malice has to be proved as well.

5. Under the British Libel Act of 1843, you could defend a charge of libel if the statement was true and if publication of it was in the public interest.

6. Defamation law, including slander (a common-law offence, usually spoken) and libel (published), developed in Britain in the 1600s at a time when the publication of vicious political and religious tracts was a burgeoning industry.

7. Zuma initiated 14 claims for defamation against the media, including suits against The Star (R1million), 94.7 Highveld Stereo (R7million) and Rapport (R5-million). Rapport, which had published a reader's letter lambasting Zuma, settled out of court; the rumoured amount was R50 000.

8. Media lawyer Dario Milo told Polity: "The majority of [Zuma's] claims, which total over R50-million, are not about news stories that the president regards as inaccurate, but rather concern criticism of his conduct."

9. It is now possible to libel someone on Twitter. Rock star Courtney Love was sued by fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir in 2009 after Love besmirched her name in a tweet. The designer settled last year for $340 000. Love's lawyers had argued that "Twitter was so appealing and addictive for Love that she had no appreciation for how the comments she posted would be received by others."

10. One extremely odd defamation case was Google being found guilty in France of defaming a man who had previously been jailed for corrupting a minor: when he did a Google search, the auto-suggest app immediately added the terms "rape", "rapist" and "prison". Google said the suggestions were automated, but was still ordered to pay the plaintiff about R50 000 in damages.

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