On Monday, Trinidad and Tobago’s Justice Frank Seepersaud ruled that a woman would have to compensate an entire family that she libelled on social media through the posting of falsified and untrue information which had caused the family “shame and embarrassment” while bringing them into countrywide and international ridicule.
The woman had posted information on Facebook in which she alleged that there was an incestuous relationship taking place between siblings in the family as she uploaded photos of the father and two children who were underage. This had forced the country’s Child Care and Protection Unit to visit the family after the post went viral.
In the end, the Unit determined that the allegations were all false. In her defence, she told the court that someone else may have uploaded the libellous information after gaining access to her account. She did acknowledge removing the offensive material after it was brought to her attention. Luckily, the victims whom the posts were directed at had saved and screen-grabbed the posts. They were later tendered as evidence in the libel suit against the woman.
But Justice Seepersaud, while delivering his ruling, warned that the damage to the family’s reputation had already been done as it has made its imprint in cyberspace and cannot be destroyed as is the case with a book or newspaper. He said that social media should be utilised in a responsible and cautious manner.
The Judge then said anonymity cannot obviate the need to respect people’s rights and users cannot recklessly impugn a person’s character as words matter. He then dispelled the perception that things posted on a social media platform were private as opposed to public, as once uploaded there they are offered no privacy protection but are subject to the laws that regulate traditional media. He reasoned that people who engage in acts like the woman were now taking on the roles of journalists and, therefore, had to be treated accordingly. He reminded of the old phrase that “you will pay for your mouth”, proffering that social media users need to ensure their accounts are secured because legally they can “pay for their posts”.
The ruling by the Trinidadian Judge must be seen as a step in the right direction and is being welcomed in several parts of the Caribbean and further afield as a victory for victims of cyber bullying, character assassination and social media libel/defamation. For far too long, people have watched from the sidelines as irresponsible users of newer forms of media upload dishonest, private and false information which is later reposted millions of times. They often feel as though they have little or no recourse and the Police are baffled as to how to charge and prosecute those engaged in shameless and reckless dissemination of other people’s personal information with the intent to malign or shame them.
In Guyana, the Police and justice system are also beginning to dispense justice to victims like the Trinidadian family, but more needs to be done to discourage social media users from posting information that is false and damaging to people’s reputation, especially families’. Many times there is an attempt to hide behind fake profiles or the argument that an account was hacked in order to escape culpability, but slowly the justice system here is developing ways of dealing with those issues.
There are far-reaching implications of posting sensitive information in public spaces and Justice Seepersaud’s ruling explains these implications in a simplified manner. There are political and diplomatic implications too.
There is a need for a paradigm shift in order to change the manner in which people utilise social media especially since some are coming to grips with the reality that they are not totally immune from prosecution, because there are no explicitly codified laws that speak to social media use here. Other Judges should follow the example set by their Trinidadian counterpart.