DEFINING SLANDER AND LIBEL
BY ARMAND RODRIGUES
The human proclivity to gossip is as old the hills We are a nosey bunch and like to know what our friends and neighbours are up to. If the snippet of gossip is a salacious morsel, it soon spreads like wildfire and then reaches far and wide. Sadly, as the item travels from mouth to mouth it tends to undergo distortions and embellishments often based on fictitious add-ons by the gossiper. This could be simply by how the hearer interpreted the juicy morsel and passed it on. Before long uncharitable character-assassination could be the result and a person’s reputation or good name suffers serious damage. Some of us may be guilty of causing another harm by relaying superficial hearsay, even if unintended. Unfair, or bad gossip may have some entertainment value but is usually far from complimentary.
It is not for me to stand in judgement, but studies have shown that women tend to “socialize” by talking and trading “stories” about others, with greater zeal. In every community, there are unscrupulous people known for their propensity to carry a tale and disseminate it to all and sundry, without a second thought. They become the mouthpiece of society and take false pride in believing that they are keeping others in the loop.
At the end of the day, there are consequences to bear in mind for those with “loose lips”, “big mouths” or “diarrhoea of the mouth”. If the gossip is oral or spoken, one is guilty of slander. If it is in written form it constitutes libel. There is a distinction between the two. Slander is, in essence, transient and is generally more difficult to prove in court. The onus is on the plaintiff to show that the infraction caused direct damage to his/her reputation or standing in the community. This “escape” clause is by no means a licence to indulge in gossip and get away with impunity!
With libel, it is more permanent in nature, and proof of defamation is in black and white and published. It is then there for all to see. Whether slander or libel, the words found offensive have to be true in substance and fact, and, of course, have been made known to a third party by the defendant. Proceedings for libel are personal in nature and so must be initiated by the person defamed.
Exceptions to the foregoing apply to authors, public speakers and newspapers when it comes to matters of public interest, and they enjoy a qualified special privilege. They can express their views in the form of fair comment on matters of public interest. This privilege is what applies to all judicial, parliamentary and national proceedings. This is known as absolute privilege, and no action can lie in statements made in the course of such proceedings within the house. It is held that persons who occupy positions in the above settings are immune to normal constraints and are free and independent, with their acts and words not being subject to inquiry. Now we understand better why our M.Ps and other representatives get away with the mud-slinging and character-assassination that they indulge in to intimidate members of the opposite party.
For us, common folks, to keep our noses clean all we need to do is keep a close watch on our utterances or extensions thereof and not use a poison- pen when discretion is the better part of valour.