FEATURE ARTICLE

Ikechi Udegbunam ChukwunonyeTuesday, December 26, 2006
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NEW MEDIA, LAW AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION


y the side, a man in builder's uniform sits on an elevated metal stand. He seems to be aware of what he is doing, what with the tinge of caution. In one of his pockets a folded newspaper protrudes, revealing the word: national. A man is standing by two men with a microphone interviewing one. One of them throws his face away from the camera. A man stares at the camera and makes a circled impression on it. Scores of enthusiastic youths shout Nazi chants with ferocity. The police get on stage to pick sympathizers. This is one of the many despicable Nazi/racist scenes freely available on YouTube. YouTube encapsulates the excess of internet liberality. YouTube, founded in Febuary 2005, by three Paypal employees, is a free video sharing site. With freedom comes abuse. The ability of the internet to embrace millions, opens it up to excess. Freedom of expression on the internet is made saucier with anonymity and has led to wanton defamation of people.


Internet consists of interconnected networks of computers that transmit data by packet switching, using the standard internet protocol. New Media consists of modes of communication powered by digital technonlogy.They include websites, email, mobile and podcast.

The advent of internet has spawned many groups catering for different aspects. The physical texture of daily existence has gone virtual. Different national, ethnic and religious groups vie for space on the internet. The internet is a kaleisdospic impression. It can be colorless and vivacious. If you walk down a cafeteria you might see people chatting away, smiling and exchanging friendly jokes. The internet has made this possible online in its own way. Now you can join loads of forums catering for divergent interests. Sometimes, you can come across news, you have never heard of before, about your country or the world. This may be because it originates from a specialist website accessible only by subscription. However, with the rise in internet usage, defamatory challenges have arisen.

Can one be liable for defamation on the internet? While the internet is a relative new ground and may be absolutely impossible to know everyone who uses it, it may not provide the individual with unbridled leeway to spew bile on a person or group. The anonymity the internet grants makes it almost possible for anyone to stroll into an internet café and spew libel or slander and get way with it. You do not suffer first-nerves on entrance, so its appeal is infectious.

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But increasingly, many governments are looking into freedom of expression on the internet. In the early heydays of the internet, it was a beautiful doll to scribble on, fantasize about; but today the honeymoon bubble is out and the internet has become a steep battleground for criminal, terrorist and other underworld dwellers, spurring a need for urgent action. The internet is a shadow of the real world. Just about everything can be done on the internet. Gone are the days of browsing, looking around and marveling at its unearthly creativity, it is now part of us. We keep tab of our bank accounts on the internet, shop ,send emails to friends and so on. The internet is endearing not least because of its ability for reasonable delivery, but its provision of wide breadth of information. But yet a middle point needs to be struck in its usage.

People have taken advantage of the pliancy of the internet to dissipate information falsely about people and it is to this end that great attention has been turned. The internet had invited many to it because of its ability to absorb differing views at once.

Every democracy boasts of tolerance. A system where, dissent as well as favored speeches/written words are allowed to live together. Laws are put in place to achieve this as well as law enforcement consisting of police amongst others. History is replete with autocrats who attempted to stifle media freedom to entrench opposition to progress. Throughout the world, in democratic set-ups, where media rights are enshrined, parliaments attempt to thread the fine line between maintaining individual reputation against intrusion and freedom of speech. Democracy presupposes liberty of speech and participation.It is a system unimpinged by the ball and chain of autocracy. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of democracy. Because humans are different in their outlook, there is bound to be differing views on issues. Government tries to strike a balance between the need to protect the public or groups against defamatory volleys with the need to guarantee freedom of speech.

Defamation is a tort law that seeks to protect the reputation of the claimant or the wronged individual. It consists of libel and slander. Libel takes a permanent nature while slander a temporal one.

The individual/media has defenses against a charge of defamation: Justification; Fair comment; Innocent dissemination; Privilege, consisting of absolute and qualified privilege. As early as 1996, there has been laws checking the excesses of internet usage.

In the British case Godfrey v Demon Internet Ltd, the ISP(Demon Internet) were a newsgroup. In January 1997, an anonymous person made defamatory statements against Dr.Godfrey on the newsgroup.He complained four days later to Demon Internet but they pay no heed to him. The statements stayed on for two weeks. Demon Internet Ltd, were charged.

The 2006, English libel case, Keith-Smiths v William. Tracy Williams falsely accused Michael Keith Smith, former UKIP(a British party) candidate, of being a sexual offender and racist in a yahoo chatroom.Smith was awarded 10,000 pounds in damages.

Mark Stephens, head of media law at Finer Stephens Innocent, commenting on the judgment in an article Verdict casts dark cloud over freedom of speech wrote: 'The judge has applied the old-fashioned, anachronistic tenets of libel law to the fast-evolving medium of blogging, which recognises the democratisation of knowledge.

'The internet is a valuable means of exchanging information, ideas and, yes, sometimes abuse. But anyone who reads an abusive web posting will treat it with the weight it deserves: very little. It is watercooler conversation that does no real damage.'
He warns that the judgment casts a shadow on the viability of the internet.
'The vibrancy of the internet could be under threat from frivolous actions. The success of blogs is the ability people have to meet speech with more speech. We can put forward our own policies, dismiss ranters and attach links to sites promoting our views...' he said.

Many activists have found a safe haven on the internet. A Zimbabwean newspaper, that was shut down by the Mugabe government opened up shortly afterwards, on the internet. Reporters Without Borders(RWB), a group founded by its Secretary, General Robert Menard, says that this year, 2006, 81 journalists and 32 media assistants have been killed. It also records 142 journalists imprisoned,32 Media assistants imprisoned and 60 Cyber dissidents imprisoned.

The Nigerian internet sojourn began in earnest in 2001, when the communication sector was liberalized. With it came a historic upsurge in internet cafes and phone lines. There was a growth in blogging naturally for a country that had been under the throes of dictatorship. But still, journalists live with their hearts in their mouth. Journalists Without Borders (JWB) ranks Nigeria, 120th on its ranking list out of 168 countries, with a score of 32.0 this year. In this year's annual report about Nigeria, it laments the poor treatment of journalists. However, it praised the privately owned press for being 'robust, pluralist and populist. It does not mince its words about the powerful. Its outspokenness, won through years of "guerrilla journalism", secret meetings and under-the-counter distribution, is general.' It provides a list :

11 October 2006 - "Sedition" case dropped against one journalist, another case adjourned

11 October 2006 - Government urged to go all-out in investigation into leading journalist's murder

25 August 2006 - Two Ebonyi Voice journalists released provisionally

23 August 2006 - Deaths threats against Daily Independent political affairs editor

6 June 2006 - Leading TV political presenter released

16 May 2006 - Calls for third presidential term increase pressure on news media

19 April 2006 - Newspaper publisher hounded by power-hungry deputy state governor

22 March 2006 - Beatings, threat, arrests, unfair dismissal, censorship - Nigeria's journalists see no improvement

The bottom three countries in the ranking list are North Korea,Turkmenistan and Eritrea. 'The three worst violators of free expression - North Korea, bottom of the Index at 168th place, Turkmenistan (167th) and Eritrea (166th) - have clamped down further. The torture death of Turkmenistan journalist Ogulsapar Muradova shows that the country's leader, "President-for-Life" Separmurad Nyazov, is willing to use extreme violence against those who dare to criticize him. Reporters Without Borders is also extremely concerned about a number of Eritrean journalists who have been imprisoned in secret for more than five years. The all-powerful North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, also continues to totally control the media....' the Paris-based organization said.

The internet might prove to be the waterloo of autocratic governments who hold their citizens with iron grip. Politicians on the fiddle are latched at, on the internet, as well as people dancing attendance on them. The internet is a nightmare for dictatorships because of its easy transfer of information and its immense potential to open the world up to countries hitherto locked in enforced ignorance of the outside world. It is no wonder, repressive governments or weak democracies seem to censor the internet the heaviest. In North Korea, there is little internet access and it is still heavily censored. Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China have censorship programmes amongst others. Many countries have pulled all stops, and rightly so in my judgment, to stem the tide of vices on the internet.