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Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)
LAWYERS IN THE MEDIA (LIM) FORUM
5th Annual Lecture
NBA Port-Harcourt Law Center, August 24th, 2011
The contemporary torts of libel and slander, collectively known as defamation laws which are common features in the legal system of several Commonwealth countries today including the United States of America originated primarily from the English defamation law which permits an aggrieved party to initiate an action for libel for any printed, broadcast or published false statements that harm reputation, diminish respect, defame character, or cause a reasonable person to have a low esteem of that individual or entity. However, Governmental entities cannot institute or maintain actions for defamation although an offended government official can sue for libel for statements or allegations made against the official in his individual capacity.
Under the common law, libel can both be civil and or criminal even though, the British Government had in January 2010 abolished the criminal libel which had been in full operation since or around the reign of King James I. Section 73 (Abolition of common law libel offences etc)of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 abolished the following offences under the common law of England and Wales and the common law of Northern Ireland: (a) the offences of sedition and seditious libel; (b) the offence of defamatory libel ;(c)the offence of obscene libel. see www. legislation.gov.uk.
In another recent development which represented a huge shift from the English law, the British House of Lords have taken radical steps to relax the centuries old English defamation law by adopting a more generous and dynamic approach to the protection of free speech which would unbound journalists to investigate scoops more robustly without fear of libel lawsuits. Hitherto, the history of English libel law was that “essentially, no decision was final in a newsroom until a judge, several years later, agreed” with the newspapers’ editorial content and judgment. (Stuart Karle, Wall Street Journal’s General Counsel).
In a recent case of Jameel v wall Street Journal Europe, (2006) UKHL 44 House of Lords, the House of Lords rejected the traditional sympathetic and favorable approach to libel plaintiffs by affirming for the first time, that journalists have the right to publish allegations about public figures as long as their reporting is responsible and in the public interest. In the unanimous ruling, one of the panelists, Lord Scott of Foscote, while defending the right of the press to publish materials deemed classified by the government said; “ it is no part of the duty of the press to cooperate with the government….. in order to keep from the public information of public interest the disclosure of which cannot be said to be damaging to national interest” while Baroness Hale of Richmond wrote: “ we need more such serious journalism in this country, and our defamation law should encourage rather than discourage it”. See The New York Times , October 12, 2006, Networked knowledge Law Reports .@ www.netk.net.au/defamation/jameel.asp.