Defamation via social media – rights vs responsibilities

 By Uzair Adams

Social media platforms have become an increasingly convenient and instant means of communication across the globe. However, easy access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, amongst others, does not come without drawbacks, particularly relating to matters of defamation.

Defamation via social media has been the bone of contention of several hearings before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), particularly where employees share information regarding their employers that is disgraceful or detrimental to their employers’ reputation.

On 6 November 2018, ProBono.Org Cape Town was approached by a children’s hospice for assistance with a labour dispute relating to the conduct of an employee, where an allegation was made via a WhatsApp text message to one of the employer’s board members alleging maladministration, financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency by the CEO of the nonprofit organisation.

The employee was subsequently charged with defamation of character, in that he intentionally conveyed false information to the board member, and was further charged with bringing the organisation’s name into disrepute, in that he claimed that the CEO had misrepresented the organisation’s financial position to the Department of Social Development.

In this regard, a disciplinary hearing ought to have been held on 22 August 2018, where Mr. M was appointed as an independent chairperson, but he was unfortunately involved in a serious accident and was no longer able to oversee such disciplinary process. The children’s hospice, like many NGOs in South Africa, is currently faced with an unfortunate funding crisis, and has limited financial and human resources available that would have enabled a fair and thorough disciplinary hearing. ProBono.Org Cape Town proceeded to brief counsel to act as an independent chairperson and to facilitate the disciplinary hearing, which was held on 23 November 2018.

Summary of the Chairperson’s findings:

  • The chairperson noted that he could not find the employee guilty on both allegations as it would amount to a duplication of “convictions”.
  • The chairperson could see no evidence showing that the employee had brought the employer into disrepute. The allegation made was via a private WhatsApp text message to one of the employer’s board members. There was therefore no evidence that the employee’s allegation was publicised in any way, or that it affected the employer’s reputation.
  • The question remained whether the employee was guilty of defamation of character in that he ‘intentionally gave false information that humiliated and belittled the CEO, which made her look foolish and ridiculous and which rendered her less worthy of respect by the board members. The chairperson found the employee guilty of this allegation, in that he conveyed information to one of the employer’s board members which was false. If the employee had made the proper inquiries, he would have discovered that there was no inflation of figures. The CEO confirmed (and it was not contested) that the Department was fully aware of how the employer arrived at its figures and accepted that the employer was acting appropriately.
  • The chairperson further noted that he did not accept that the employee made the allegation in order to bring an impropriety to the attention of the board. If that was so, the employee would have sent a message detailing that concern. However, the allegation relating to inflating figures was a throw-away (yet deeply insulting) remark.
  • Moreover, the chairperson considered whether the employee’s allegation amounted to a protected disclosure for the purposes of the Protected Disclosures Act and found that it did not.
    • Firstly, the allegation was not a ‘disclosure’ within the definition of the Act, given that it did not relate to a serious impropriety within the meaning set out in Malan v Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JA 61/11) [2013] ZALAC 24 (12 September 2013). The allegation was one relating to figures which were readily available and known by the board. They were also known by the Department which accepted them and the manner in which they were calculated.
    • Secondly, the employee’s allegation was made to the employer and, in terms of the Protected Disclosures Act, had to be made in good faith, which the chairperson did not accept was the case under the circumstances.
  • The employee’s conduct was therefore unacceptable, and the appropriate sanction imposed was a written warning suspended for 6 months on condition that the employee was not found guilty of similar misconduct within the stipulated period.

Employees now have several platforms where they can vent their frustration and raise concerns regarding their employers. However, employees ought to utilise such platforms responsibly or face severe consequences, as illustrated in this case. While freedom of speech and expression, together with the right to privacy, affords us great power, the risk of publicly defaming the character of another has increased exponentially with the constant evolution of the social media landscape. Consequently, we have to remain cognisant of the fact that with such great power comes great responsibility.

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