The tort of defamation (1) – The claim

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Over the last couple of weeks, a Nigerian blogger by the name of Seun Oloketuyi, has made news over reports on his blog concerning the Managing Director of Fidelity Bank Plc. The reports claimed that the MD was in an adulterous affair with another employee of the bank. The MD, Nnamdi Okonkwo, has taken legal action against Oloketuyi in a defamation claim.

I am happy that a matter like this is in our courts. It is unfortunate for Oloketuyi, who has to go through the process of defending himself, but it is a lesson to all those who operate online, that the same rules for offline, real life behaviour, apply to them. The instantaneous nature of the internet, the quest for millions of hits on a site or story, and the facade of anonymity sometimes cloud the judgment of otherwise reasonable people. But this case shows that the law will reach for you from behind your computer screen.

So what is the tort of defamation?

Defamation is a false written or oral statement that damages the reputation of a person. It is an attack on the reputation of a person, which adversely affects their standing in society. Words will be held to be defamatory if, in their meaning, they have the effect of making the person about whom they are spoken to be regarded with contempt, ridicule, fear, dislike or odium or lower that person in the estimation of reasonable, right thinking people in the society.

The context in which the statement is made also matters. Defamation exists in two forms, i.e., libel and slander.

LIBEL: Is a defamatory statement expressed in a fixed medium. It usually refers to written statements such as in letters, magazines, newspapers, or any other printed matter, but it could be used to refer to a picture, sign or electronic broadcast.

SLANDER: Is a defamatory statement expressed in transient form, e.g. by spoken word in casual conversation.

The tort of libel was considered in the Supreme Court case of V. M. Iloabachie, Esq. v. Benedict N. Iloabachie (as reported in Nigerian Supreme Court Report [2005] 5 NSCR Vol. 2). In this case, V. M. Iloabachie, Esq instituted a libel claim against his uncle, B. N. Iloabachie over statements made in letters addressed to third parties. The trouble started over land matter. In essence, V. M. Iloabachie, Esq sold his grandfather’s (Peter Iloabachie) house without authority from the head of the family to do so, and pocketed the proceeds.

He got the original owners of the land (Mgbelekeke family) to provide new documents of ownership, claiming, amongst other things, that none existed because they had been destroyed by his late stepmother. Upon receiving a letter from his nephew that the house needed to be vacated, B. N. Iloabachie (at this point the head of the Peter Iloabachie family) wrote to his nephew objecting to the sale, and when this letter was ignored, he wrote to the Mgbelekeke family, and Director-General of the Ministry of Lands, Awka, as interested parties, using some choice words to tell them that the sale by his nephew was unauthorised and needed to be set aside.

According to the report, V. M. Iloabachie, Esq claimed that by his uncle’s letters, “… his name was brought into odium and ridicule more so as he is a solicitor, an alumnus of the (sic) prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and is married to a woman from a reputable family in Edo State. He stated that he is a member of Inwelle Age Grade Ogidi, and happens to the only solicitor from Ogidi appointed by the Igwe (King) to be a member of an arbitration panel in the area.”

In the High Court, where the matter was first determined, V. M. Iloabachie, Esq proved his uncle’s assertions by being untruthful (a fact which came out during proceedings and his cross-examination). Not satisfied by the High Court’s finding in favour of his uncle, he took the matter to the Court of Appeal, where he lost again, and finally, to the Supreme Court, where he was given the final kick in the teeth.

Pats-Acholonu, JSC, gave the lead judgment and stated with regards the definition of defamation, “The tort of defamation, whether libel or slander, relates essentially to damages to the character of the person. In other words, a plaintiff, who institutes an action for libel has invariably put his character in issue. He is understood to be telling the whole world what a good person he is, and stating that someone is trying to destroy his available good name. He puts his reputation at stake depending, of course, on what the defamation is all about.

In the course of consideration of the case but particularly as in this case, the Appellant (Iloabachie, Esq), had shown through his pleadings what a person of great repute and of unblemished character he is; he has literally thrown his hat in the ring, caution to the wind, and dares the defamer to disprove his good and admirable character. Wherein the process of the proceedings, facts elicited in the evidence, portray him as an inveterate liar, incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood. He might have unwittingly succeeded, by his inconsistent statements and falsehoods, destroyed his character, which he held out to the world to be clean. In such as case he cannot complain if the Court finds out that he is a chronic or penitus insitus liar.”

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