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Lessons on libel: South African blogger sued for defamation

Update 14th of January 2009: According to a post to his Facebook support group Donn Edwards signed an out-of-court settlement agreement with Quality Vacation Club in which he agreed to remove articles about QVC from his blog and not to write about the company for the next five years .

If Quality Vacation Club (QVC) thought that by suing blogger, Donn Edwards, for defamation they would silence any criticism of their dubious marketing tactics, they were wrong. Instead, the blogger’s case has started an avalanche of attacks from sources both in the blogging and mainstream media arena. Unwilling and unable to take the case lying down, Donn Edwards initiated a campaign that has sparked the attention of bloggers throughout the country – with suggestions that the community form a permanent group to monitor blogger freedom in the country.

This is what we’ve learned:

1. Solidarity is our greatest weapon.

Donn Edwards did a great job of couching the QVC case as a case against all bloggers in South Africa rather than just a personal attack. According to Guy McLaren:

QVC’s attack on Donn was interpreted as an attack on Blogging. Now most bloggers have at least 4 readers, some have more. But facts are that blogs are a powerful medium and if you want negative publicity, attack the blogging world and I know that Bloggers know people in radio, on TV, in fact some bloggers are from the press.

Apart from the 40+ blog posts and 100s of comments supporting Edwards, a Facebook group with 300+ members was set up for people to express support for Edwards, as well as a wiki documenting the growing number of blog posts and articles dedicated to the case. With his logo entitled ‘Blogger court case’, Edwards contacted other bloggers early on, asking them to write about the case, and so start a distributed network attack that left QVC spinning. Then, instead of QVC attempting to silence what Eve Dmochowska called ‘One lonesome blog, that is mostly focused on writing about computer security, and whose audience is probably least likely to be talked into a QVC sale anyway’, they now had hundreds of people making similar statements.

The irony is that, what became a transparent, community-driven campaign will end up being settled privately out of court. This will prevent a legal precedent being set for cases that will inevitably come up against bloggers in the future.

2. The mainstream media loves a good David and Goliath story

My ears pricked up one morning in December when I heard popular talk show host, John Robbie, interviewing Edwards about the QVC case on Johannesburg Talk Radio 702. After the interview, Robbie took calls from others who had similar complaints about the company. And so the momentum grew. The Sunday Independent also wrote about the story – and more recently Noseweek.

The lesson? The traditional media love a good David and Goliath story. But add bloggers and social media to the mix and you might just start questioning who the David is in the story.

3. Be careful. Take some time to think about the people on the other side of our blog posts and learn about your rights and responsibilities.

Probably the first high-profile case against a local blogger, Donn Edwards’ experience has shown how important it is to recognise that, with our need to criticize, comes a need to understand our rights and responsibilities.

Paul Jacobson has a post cautioning bloggers from adopting the ‘controversial title of citizen journalists’ but the fact is that whether we call ourselves ‘citizen journalists’ or not, a number of laws are triggered when we start publishing online.

Chris M. wrote:

‘This just goes to show that these days, as bloggers, we actually need to be really careful about what we say and about who we flame, because someone might be sitting on the other end, ready to pounce and take advance of us small bloggers.’

Perhaps the most insightful comment came from Tony Lankester.

There’s a warning in his experience that all bloggers, myself included, should heed. If you’re going to play in the sandpit of journalism, learn all the rules. Even if you plan on breaking them. At least learn from the dozens of court cases that have preceded you. Just because the online world is on screen only, it doesn’t mean that the real world laws of defamation and libel don’t apply. And just because you are your own headline writer, journalist, copy editor, editor and publisher, it doesn’t mean you have latitude to ignore the basic courtesies, practices and principles of good journalism.

Blogging has really grown up in the South Africa over the past year. Eve Dmochowska believes that we've learned a great deal about giving and receiving criticism well and has a great post on what she learned in 2008.

Most importantly, though, local bloggers have learned how important it is to work together. Hopefully something will come out of the Facebook wall post that Andrew Edwards (Donn’s brother) wrote on December 29, 2008:

Donn asked that I shut down the group once the last post about the saga is made on his blog. I thought we should then start a new group with a new name and mission. Any recommendations? Like “can a leopard change his snots” (a group to monitor blogger freedom and aggressive companies)??

Photo: ‘David vs Goliath’ by maha-online on Flickr – CC BY-SA

8 comments

  • It’s amazing to see just how much support Donn got from all of us – fantastic :)

  • And even better if we can put that support to more permanent use with a longer-term campaign :) I’ve posted at http://hblog.org – let me know if you want to help out!

  • […] edwards, freedom of expression | by novelheather I’ve started writing for Global Voices. My first post is about the Donn Edwards libel case. I really enjoyed reading the different perceptions by […]

  • Thanks for the link to my post, Heather. For a little while it looked like there was going to be a preliminary hearing about whether Donn was in contempt of court for continuing to post about the story and that could have been a great opportunity to establish a legal precedent on this issue. I don’t think it would have been necessary to go as far as trial.

    From a lawyer’s perspective it was a pity that the case settled because it would have been a great opportunity to establish that precedent. On the other hand a settlement is probably a good result for Donn although we don’t know what the terms of the settlement were.

  • Thanks, Paul. FYI, I don’t think a settlement has been reached as yet. Am trying to find out.

  • Yeah, we also got a tone of support, and a fair amount of infamy from Jo’blog’s \GS is a Wanker\ post.

  • Carole Parker

    Has anyone been on a volunterr internship for the International Justic Mission? I’m thinking of going to South Africa but I’m concerned for my safety.

  • E F Orwell

    The UK Libel Laws have taken another step into the abyss and could signal the end of Free Speech. A UK based media club, The Groucho Club which is owned by a billion pound corporation ‘Graphite Capital’ have launched a one of kind High Court action for a pre publishing test case for libel against Tyrone D Murphy, the author of an exposé book about the club. The book has not been completed yet and the case seems to be based on what could be written and not what has been written.

    The writer is defending this action in person as the costs are astronomical and I am supporting this writer and his cause. All writers and journalists should also support him as he is in the forefront of the battle for free speech.

    What do you make of this type of case where a legal action can be taken against a writer of a book that has not been written yet? This action is certainly a threat against all writers and journalists

    http://www.g-book.co.uk is the book web site

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