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Article by listed attorney: Fawzia Khan

There is global rise in the number of online defamation cases. It’s not hard to see why. Posting an unfavourable comment or status update of someone on your Facebook wall or Twitter account is so easy. If the person concerned has upset you and you are highly emotional, posting such a comment could give you the temporary vindication with many other people sympathizing with you but beware, it could just as easily land you in hot water. As far as the law is concerned you could be sued for defamation and end up paying the “victim” for damaging his/her reputation. The Pretoria High Court recently granted an ex wife damages in the sum of R40 000,00 after certain defamatory postings were made on Facebook by her ex husband’s present wife. The ex wife at the time was involved in litigation proceedings with her ex husband. She took both her ex husband and his new wife to court and successfully claimed damages from them for two Facebook postings made by the new wife.

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The postings which were in Afrikaans were to the effect that the public was encouraged to comment on what they thought of “people who allow step brothers to bath their little sisters every night, because it made the mother’s life easier”. The interesting fact about this case was that the court also considered the husband to have been implicit in the defamation as he was tagged in the postings and did nothing about it. Judge Hiemstra said that as the husband allowed his name to be used and he therefore was equally responsible for the defamation.

Remember that even though in South Africa we have the right of freedom of expression, such right will not extend to the right to damaging a person’s reputation. It’s crucial that after venting or insulting someone and before you hit the “send” button, you should think first! Very often we may unwittingly become drawn into a potential defamation claim if we are not careful about our utterances in our chats, group chats, blogs or tweets. I would also caution that you think twice before you re-tweet any such posting as you could arguably be seen to be reproducing the defamatory material. Before you share information on any social media platform, it’s also important to verify the truth of the information. Salacious news, tempting though it may be, should not be re-broadcast unless you are certain that it’s true and it’s in the public benefit, to know.  

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