South Africa has spent the better part of last week riveted by the Oscar Pistorius court case with a large portion of the population receiving the latest updates via Twitter or YouTube. Barry Bateman from Eyewitness News increased his following by over 50 000 people in a 24 hour period and a total of 120 000 in the first week, due to the fact that he supplied real-time updates about the court proceedings. In today’s digital age, citizens have become journalists, investigators, medical experts, law experts and broadcasters in their own right.
Although social media has provided a platform for people with common interests to converse and share ideas, the broader public is of the opinion that one is permitted to express oneself without any true consequences as a result of their opinions posted on social networking platforms. This is certainly not the case as the world famous court case in the UK involving Lord McAlpine proves. Lord McAlpine announced on Thursday last week that he is ending his legal pursuit of certain Twitter users over false allegations linking him to child sex abuse in return for donations to Children In Need. However, he is going to continue pursuing Twitter users with 500 followers or more, including Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons speaker, over her allegedly defamatory tweets.
A person’s profile and activity on social networking platforms is certainly a reputation-based issue, not only for them personally but for the organisation they are employed by. Emma Sadlier from Weber Wentzel Attorneys appeared on Carte Blanche on Sunday, 24th February stating that one should always be comfortable to have their tweets or social networking posts placed on a large billboard in the middle of Sandton City along with their full identities. If this is not the case, explained Sadlier, don’t post your comment. By all accounts this is a good litmus test for all social media users.
The Sunday Independent published an article yesterday by Dario Milo and Avani Singh that explored the notion of whether or not the media crossed the line between what can and cannot be reported in South Africa about pending court proceedings?
This important question raises the notorious sub judice rule, and the uncertainty that surrounds what it means and how it applies. The rule creates an obvious tension between the administration of justice, which it purports to protect, and the constitutional right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to receive and impart information. A breach of the sub judice rule could result in a charge of contempt of court and a criminal conviction.
The rule is designed to protect the administration of justice by restricting publicity about pending court proceedings (both civil and criminal).
The lesson: social media does not mean that one can post defamatory comments on Twitter or other social media platforms and expect to get away with it. The legal and digital landscape is changing and one can and will be held responsible.
Fleishman-Hillard South Africa provides reputation management solutions in the communications space that can assist individuals or companies to position themselves and their message correctly on social media platforms. An integrated communications approach is essential to ensure the correct take-up of your message as international and local trends indicate that digital activity can no longer be viewed in isolation to your or your company’s overall reputation.
Digital savvy communications is essential when managing an issue or crises situation and often companies are defamed by users at such a speed that many are at a loss for words or don’t know how to respond. It’s crucial that companies and individuals are prepared to respond within seconds if needed and the trick is to know when to enter the conversation and when to keep quiet. Understanding the peaks and troughs of a conversation is also essential to ensure that a company doesn’t intervene at a point that simply fuels the conversation and that requires advanced digital monitoring tools and analysis across all platforms.
All in all, the coming few weeks will be very interesting from a reporting and content perspective as South Africa waits with bated breath for Oscar Pistorius’ court proceedings to resume later this year.