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Article by listed attorney: Fawzia Khan

The ease and speed by which information can be shared with others and indeed the world at large is nothing short of remarkable. It’s been said that there are more than one billion active Facebook users and over 500 million Twitter accounts. Many of these users and those who use other social network platforms such as LinkedIn, MySpace, Orkut, Tagged, My Life and many others, use their accounts to post comments, blogs, status reports and updates regarding what’s happening in their private lives and in the lives of others. Often these online public platforms are used on a daily basis, sometimes up to five or more times a day.

See latest articles on online defamation and on defaming late-paying debtors on social media

Having such amazing technology in our lives does however carry with it the potential to do serious harm and damage to others. If a comment, tweet or blog or the like is posted and it falsely injures the name and reputation of another person, it’s considered defamatory. Many people who communicate on these social network platforms may not realize how potentially dangerous it can be to not only post a defamatory comment or tweet on line, but to also indicate a “like it” post or to “re-tweet” the defamatory comment to others within their social network group. If a comment, considered defamatory, is made in any public domain, including on any blog or a forum, you could find yourself being sued for defamation.

The world is seeing a steady rise in the number of defamation cases emanating from these social media networks, and South Africa is off course no exception. Our courts appear to be mindful of the fact that technology is shaping how some legislation needs to be implemented. In the case of H v W, Judge Nigel Willis had this to say “ …The law has to take into account changing realities not only technologically but also socially or else it will lose credibility in the eyes of the people. Without credibility, law loses legitimacy. If law loses legitimacy, it loses acceptance. If it loses acceptance, it loses obedience. It is imperative that the courts respond appropriately to changing times, acting cautiously and with wisdom.” In fact the number of “online defamation” cases in my own practice has risen sharply over the past 18 months or so. I will, in future articles, endeavor to unpack a few of the defamation cases which came before the courts in South Africa. You will be able to gauge what criteria our courts use in deciding whether a particular comment, tweet, re-tweet or blog and the like, was defamatory or not and hopefully protect yourself from this potential minefield. Know your rights!

Update: More Defamation Cases

See Also: Defamation versus Freedom of Expression

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