All over the world, the social media has provided individuals with the opportunity to express themselves. Unlike real life situations where social etiquette and manners are largely restrictive and limiting, people tend to have a greater sense of freedom in expressing their interests, feelings, ideas, views and opinions on social media.
While browsing the comment sections of some news websites, blogs, forums and discussion groups, this reporter often stumbles on touchy comments or reactions by online readers whenever they feel disenchanted by the subject of a certain news story.
For example, Jonathan’s adventure and engagement with Nigerians on Facebook has made him one of the most insulted personalities on the social network. Many Nigerians who object to his policies have taken advantage of the social media to continually criticise and hurl insults and abuses at him at every opportunity.
Besides, despite Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which clearly warns users to respect the rights of other people and to avoid posting content or taking any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights, it is common to see some people commit slander, spread lies or use lewd and profane languages to hurt others.
It is so easy for someone to upload a video on YouTube, start a group on Facebook, tweet a statement on Twitter or open a blog and start writing to attack another person’s reputation. The spontaneity with which messages go viral on the Internet further complicates matters.
However, legal experts in Nigeria warn that social media users who engage in the act of damaging people’s reputation need to retrace their steps.
According to them, the absence of a comprehensive law in the country, since Nigeria has yet to have specific laws addressing slander committed via social networks, should not be seen as providing a leeway for citizens to engage in such despicable acts.
They argue that the Evidence Act as amended in 2011 makes provision for the admissibility of computer generated evidence to prove such cases in the law court.
The Chairman of the Nigeria Bar Association, Ikeja Branch, Mr. Monday Ubani, notes that messages, which defame other people on social networks have assumed alarming dimension.
Ubani says anyone who suffers acts of defamation on social media could, as a result of the amended section of the Evidence Act, seek redress in court.
Describing defamation as a dual-nature offence, which makes it either a civil wrong or a criminal act, he says the civil form of defamation seeks to protect one’s reputation and good name from being tainted. In criminal defamation, the law seeks to prevent a situation, especially on the part of State, where public peace is endangered.
He says, “Section 84 of the Evidence Act, as amended in 2011, makes provision for admissibility of computer-generated evidence, and such evidence(s) of defamation on social networks will be acceptable when tendered once the complainant, can establish the source of the evidence; and the process of collecting the evidence can be certified.
“If the accused is found guilty in the case of criminal form of defamation, he or she risks jail term. Section 375 of the Criminal Code classifies defamation as a misdemeanour and when found liable, the accused faces a sentence of one year imprisonment.
“But if you publish a defamatory comment or material and it could be proved that the accused knows full well that the statement is false before publishing on the said medium, the accused if convicted will be sentenced to two year imprisonment.
“However, Section 376 of the Criminal Code frowns at people who defame other people’s character with the intent to extort or induce the affected person to part with money or property. Such acts are classified as felony and if found guilty, the accused risks seven years’ imprisonment for the injuries and damages done.’’
Ubani says the civil form of defamation could make the defendants pay huge sums of money in terms of remedies after determination of such suits. He advises Nigerians who make avid use of the social media to be careful with what they post on social networks as it could backfire.
Stemming from the absence of a clear-cut comprehensive law in the country guiding people’s modus operandi on social platforms, Ubani urged the National Assembly to make laws that would protect citizens from suffering injuries as a result of defamation on social media.
“We are in a digital generation and the National Assembly should move with the times. We need a substantive law that would protect people from character assassination and defamation on social platforms. We cannot continue to dwell on old laws in this age,” he adds.
by Temitayo Famutimi