Law of Defamation

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Facing up to libel suits

©The Sunday Star (Used by permission)
Comment by Chelsea L.Y. Ng

Sunday, 01 June 2008 08:12am

IN SHAKESPEARE’S Much Ado About Nothing, the female protagonist Hero who was supposed to marry her lover Claudio fell down in a dead faint in front of the priest who was to conduct their wedding after her lover mistakenly accused her of talking to another man at her bedroom window at midnight – a most improper conduct for a young lady of that era.

Not able to bear the shame, Hero’s father wished that his daughter might never open her eyes again as he looked at her lying stiff on the ground.

According to an ancient Chinese legend, Gonggong, the Water God and Zhurong, the Fire God, had a fight not long after the world was created.

It is not known how the fierce battle was started but it ended with the Fire God as the victor.

Extremely ashamed of himself, the Water God is said to have tried to kill himself by running his head against one of the mountains that acted as pillars to support the universe.

These stories were written or told a very long time ago and they go a long way to show that “face” is something that people value a lot from time as far as we can remember.

It also shows that saving one’s honour and reputation is a matter that runs across the borders of race and religions.

Thank goodness, in modern days we do not have to resort to such drastic measure to reinstate our honour – unlike the Water God or the poor blameless Hero.

In many countries, including ours, there are laws to govern injury to reputation and protect real victims.

In Malaysia, we have the Defamation Act and in many instances, a person who had spoken badly or written something that affected another person’s reputation can receive quite unpleasant consequences.

The alleged defamer can be threatened with a defamation suit.

He might receive a letter saying that unless he retracts the impugned statement, he would be sued.

While most of the time these threats of defamation are just bluffs, they were effective in that the threat was enough to deter the person from speaking out, or enough to make him publish a retraction.

But at times real proceedings for defamation are initiated and this is the first step in a defamation action.

Legal papers like statements of claim and writs or summons should be treated seriously and carefully. Seeking legal advice is the best thing to do. Ignoring the papers will only bring trouble.

The case could go for a trial whereby the alleged defamer put up defences like justification or qualified privilege or the case could be settled with an apology or payment or both.

Fortunately for us, there is, nowadays, the trend to adopt the defence of media privilege.

In media privilege, writers learn simple steps to avoid defamation threats and actions.

The most important rule is to state the facts and not make conclusions.

For instance, instead of saying that some one is corrupt, it is better to say the person failed to respond to an allegation that he had received a sum of money from a contractor.

Or instead of saying that there was a cover-up of certain cases by the police, it is safer to say that the case remained dormant and unsolved for many years despite leads provided by the public.

In the book Evans on Defamation in Singapore and Malaysia, co-author Rueben Mathiavaranam dedicated a chapter to the subject of media privilege.

Some of the tips he gave to avoid being sued were adapted from the Reynold’s defence – a 10-point circumstantial test of responsible journalism.

The terms “Reynolds’ defence” came after a court in Britain handed down a ruling, which sets a much more demanding test of “responsible journalism” than journalists had expected.

In that case, the English law lords in 1999 ruled on a claim brought by Albert Reynolds, the former Irish Prime Minister, against The Sunday Times.

Giving the leading judgment in Reynolds, Lord Nicholls gave examples of 10 factors that courts might take into account when deciding whether qualified privilege would be available as a defence to libel.

The factors or circumstances to be considered are:

• SERIOUSNESS of the allegation. The more serious it is, the more the public is misled and the individual’s reputation hurt – if the charge is untrue;

• WHETHER the subject matter is of public interest;

• WHETHER the source of the information has direct knowledge of the subject matter. Some sources have their own agenda;

• STEPS taken by the publisher to verify the information before publishing;

• WHETHER the allegation is already being investigated by a respectable agency;

• URGENCY of the matter. News is often a perishable commodity;

• WHETHER steps were taken to reach the subject of allegation for comment;

• WHETHER the article contained at least the gist of the subject of allegation’s side of the story;

• WHETHER the tone of the article raises queries or call for investigation but not adopting allegations as facts; and

• WHETHER the publication of the article was timed to give malicious impact to the subject of the allegation.

This defence principle has recently been tested in the courts here and was accepted. It is another milestone in the application of the defamation law in our country.

Therefore, with the media privilege defence, we need not resort to using anonymity, for instance, to avoid defamation.

Effectively, it means that truth searching and responsible journalism need not be hampered by the fear of being sued for defamation.

Source: Malaysian Bar




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