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Protecting Yourself from Libel

Hello, all you wonderful Climate Trackers out there! With more and more of you writing strong, opinionated and impactful pieces of environmental journalism, with every publishing window, this would be a great time to orient ourselves with the basic of protecting yourself from libel.

Environmental journalism is an area of journalism which requires you to apply an extraordinary level of scrutiny on the actions of governments, corporations, individuals and civil society organisations. Not only of your findings will necessarily be positive or neutral, but it is likely that some of them could be polarising, ruffle a few feathers and cause offense.

So how does one distinguish between being honest to your views and opinions and still protect oneself from being sued for libel.

 

libel (1)

So making any false statement, which harms the reputation of a living person, if made to a person other than the person whose reputation is being harmed is considered defamation. When this defamation happens in a transient form, over conversation it is called slander. However when such defamation occurs in the permanent form, through publication in print or any electronic form, it called libel. However, if you are sued for libel, you can take absolute truth as defence, meaning that no statement which is absolutely true will be considered libel.

In order for somebody to successfully sue you for libel, they must be able to prove three major criteria:

  1. The statement was false.
  2. The statement was published, made to a third party or more in a permanent form.
  3. It referred to the person who is suing you, either directly or indirectly. For eg. Naming a person, or by some identifiable description making the identity clear: “The President of the United States”.

When a statement of satisfying these criteria harms the reputation of someone, it is libel, and you can be sued for it, depending on the laws of the country where you live, where the other person lives, where the material was published and the like.

So, how do we protect ourselves from possible lawsuits?

  • The golden rule in journalism is to report the truth. Only and only when you are confident about something being the truth should you explicitly state it as a fact. Make sure that your opinions are clearly indicated to your beliefs, or your speculation rather than conclusive fact. So a full-proof way to protect yourself from any libel suit is to ensure that you cross check all your facts and make sure that you are reporting the truth.

 

  • Avoid References to Real People if Unsure

    If you are unsure about whether something is the truth, or do not want to harm somebody’s reputation even if it is the truth, if you want to use an important example, or need to mention such a statement, avoid using names or descriptions which might reveal the identity of the person to the general public.

 

  • Ask for Permission

    If you are interviewing somebody, make sure that you have their explicit permission to publicise the details that they are revealing to you. Sometimes when people reveal information to journalists, and that is used out of context by the journalists or in parts in a manner which defames the interviewee, it could be possible for them to sue you for libel. So make sure you record, either on video or in signed format about the kind of permission that they are giving you.

 

  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help!

    If at any point, you are worried that something you’re writing could be defamatory or you’re doubtful about whether it’s safe to publish something, feel free to contact us for help. Our resident Policy Associate, Mrinalini would be more than happy to discuss it with you to ensure that your wonderful efforts are not blighted by lack of care.

 

Happy writing, and remember to use protection, kids!

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You may download the PDF here:

How to Protect Yourself from Libel

About Mrinalini Shinde