Oct 20, 2020 Letters
I am generally against media libel (newsprint) or slander (broadcasting). Such court actions are meant to block exposures of wrongdoing, to wit, restrict press freedom. Thus, as a media operative over the last 45 years, and as someone who supports open, transparent governance, I am opposed to media lawsuits.
The public has a right to know about their government and the media (called the fourth estate or fourth branch of government as the eyes and ears of the public) should be granted unrestricted freedom to expose all that happens in government. Nothing about government should be secretive and nothing stays secret for too long. Governance in white man countries is not secret. Press law suits are discouraged in American jurisprudence as judges tend to be sympathetic with the press unlike say in Guyana. And the white don’t run to court in America for any little error printed in the papers.
KN reported that it faced several lawsuits for exposing fraud and corruption and many threats of lawsuits in recent years. Some of them are frivolous. KN or any media should be given wide latitude to publish information that is in the public interests especially on financial matters and contracts. And with the country set to take off economically, the media should have greater freedom to probe expenditures and contracts. Public figures should not be thin skinned and seek cover of court for any wrongdoing or irresponsible actions. Some lawsuits had/have no merits but were/are filed to intimidate publications with the hope that wrong doings would not be exposed. They trample on peoples’ rights to know about their wrongs. A corrupt person is not defamed when corruption is exposed.
Publications should be free to publish factual information and to entertain fair, objective, commentaries. Some bad speech is better than no speech. The US Supreme Court has taken that position; some American President (forgot name) had also made that very point over 200 years ago. As long as a media does not deliberately seek to malign reputations, the media should not be held for libel or slander. Exposing a ‘tief man’ is not injuring his or her character. That is responsible journalism.
However, free speech must be cautious and responsible and not attack people or their family (the innocent). Commentaries and reporting must not be defamatory (purposely attacking) and contain (objectionable) information known to be false. Journalists undergo training on such concepts as defamation, journalistic negligence, and ethics. They (editors in particular) are trained on what crosses the line of defamation and libel. And therefore, they should not publish information that is false and personally hurtful. If they do, then surely, they should and must be held accountable. The person who were/are responsible for the libel should be roasted, not the paper unless the papers takes responsibility through the editor. Thus, I support the comments below a column that the writers and not the paper are responsible for the contents.
Anyone who studies torts, especially in US constitutional law, would know that not all inaccurate information is libelous. The American standard on libel is very high. A publisher is libelous if it can be proven that paper is reckless with the truth. The libel writ must prove that the falsehood was/is intentionally published – the editor or writer knew the information is/was false and went ahead and publish it anyway. If a publication publishes information even if damaging to someone and the editor or writer did not know it was false, a libel would not succeed. A writ must prove that the publisher knew the information was false; even an apology would not be granted by the court without proof of malice. But an apology is often wise. A few times, I penned letters that contain inaccurate information not aware they were inaccurate. When brought to my attention, I issued an apology or retraction.
In Guyana and in the British Commonwealth, except in India, the standard on libel is much lower. If the information is thought to be inaccurate, the court may grant libel. People run to the court for any little matter published on or about them that they feel is false or defamatory. Thus, publications are careful what they publish and the public is deprived of the truth. The court should raise the bar to allow for greater press freedom.
However, the media must behave responsibly. There must be a balance between the public’s right to know (or free speech) and terrible speech that damages peoples’ reputation. Articles that knowingly and deliberately have falsehoods must not be published.
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