How to avoid defamation charges in reality

Source/Author: Aladin Abdagić, BHN Bulletin E-journalist

SARAJEVO, 30.11.2018.-Media must respect first and genuine professional rule and accordingly release, post or publish correct, true and confirmed information. Consequently, they have to do everything they can in order to get the feedback from so-called “the other side” so they could, in objective and most appropriate and fairway, present all parties involved in their stories.

Although it seems that these professional norms are easy to accomplish, in reality, it is not quite simple. Due to pressure journalists have been imposed with by their editors and deadlines, they often neglect the rules or simply have not enough time to obey these rules and fulfill their tasks in time. This is exactly why they release inaccurate, unchecked and unconfirmed information and their stories often lack constitutional elements, such as “the other side”. What is the solution to this problem? It is simple – do yourself a favor and do not release, post or publish a story until you take everything it takes to confirm your thesis.

This can be done by checking the accuracy of all sources included and all documents and statements you could possibly acquire. During this process, emotions must be put aside, including personal preferences and journalist’s ego, because the story posted upon these basics and fundamentals usually have no sustainable arguments, and this almost always means that the subject story concludes as incorrect and wrong. A journalist and media house that publishes such story may accordingly expect defamation charges from the other side as a result and the defamation legal process exhausts financially; it takes precious time for work away and if the charges are well founded (in legal terms), the process may also take the credibility away.

Besides, the announcement of such incorrect news damages the people and institutions that are subject to this news and the audience is thus provided with wrong information – which is not the goal of benevolent and beneficiary professional journalism. Center of Investigative Reporting (CIN) has so far announced and released over 500 investigative stories, tens of video stories and 14 information bases. All information must be checked several times before it is released, based on relevant documents and witnessing of involved parties that would prove allegations indicated in articles, posts or texts. Shortly – nothing should be “taken for granted”; nothing should be presumed and everything should be checked carefully several times. Due to this kind of working and operating, the CIN and their journalists have never been accused nor convicted of defamation. However, we should take into consideration yet another type of effects that create this kind of working and these effects include public reputation and trust amongst the readers.

Based on CIN stories, many investigations by judiciary and police institutions have been launched, certain legal law amendments were implemented, some politicians and highly ranked officials were also dismissed and sacked and some of them were even convicted for actions they had conducted. Journalists bear great responsibility for their work. Providing public with information regarding important and controversial information, news and affairs is not an easy task to accomplish, taking into consideration that this kind of information must be correct and unambiguous, as this is the only right and appropriate way, because journalists, with every post they release, influence the public opinion regardless to how impossible this may appear. This kind of influence may result in social reactions and consequences may (as a result) be tragic.

Denials following this will not help because (apart from the fact that journalist would be held legally responsible for defamation in front of judiciary institutions), there is even greater burden; the consciousness that their actions could produce a negative impact on public lives, including wrong opinion and attitude they may have about someone or something as a result. I have been writing this text and editing it for two days and during this time, I have also written two denials and directed them to websites that had posted incorrect and wrong news about the cooperation between the CIN and certain local institutions. Prior to this, no one has even contacted me to check whether my post was correct and what exactly was the subject of the alleged cooperation between another party and myself. Finally, this information was removed from this website after two denials and the time I had to spend writing these denials.

I later discovered that this news was forwarded to these websites by the representative of the institution and this very representative had been appointed to this position through political connections. He masterfully represented the CIN meeting (during the public event) as the meeting between the two institutions for eventual planning future cooperation. Furthermore, colleagues have posted this announcement and released it without prior investigation and analysis, despite the fact that they were not the authors of this announcement. This was completely unacceptable and represented a vast violation of basic professional rules, and this is why journalism in BiH (in general terms and because of similar conduct by journalists), is drowning into the abyss.

In CIN we like to say that we “talk” with the documents at our possession and particularly if these documents could prove and confirm corruption or criminal deeds conducted. Journalists get different information from various sources but cannot confirm whether they are accurate or true, that is, whether the document itself has been forged in the first place. We always have to check its authenticity from various sources and after that we decide to use it for our work as opposite and unprofessional actions and operations actually display a dam to semi-truth, false, wrong and incorrect news, including the atmosphere created by bad people, so they can easier attain and acquire their personal interests.

Editor of famous German newspaper told me once that his journalists got the document from certain but, on the other hand, unreliable sources in relation with the issue of arms smuggling and with members of their government being involved in this affair. Information was considered exclusive and they were eager to release it before anything else. However, it turned out that the document had been forged and the editing office was closed down for one month because the police authorities had to launch the investigation regarding this particular case. Therefore, exclusivity cannot be a priority in relation to professional journalism principles because professional journalism does exist for a good reason.

Since the establishment in 2004, the CIN has been implementing the system of information verification as a filter that does not allow incorrect and wrong information to be posted, published, released or announced. During the process of information checking, journalists are required to support every single allegation with solid, firm and verified documents (arguments), including the appropriate collocutors in regard to the subject issue. Until the checking procedure is completed, journalists and editors must reply to questions on a fair basis, regarding the subject of investigation and in accordance with professional standards. As far as I am aware, other editing offices in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not undergo the procedure of detailed information checking.

Those in charge with investigative journalism must do this while editing office (the office in charge of posting, publishing and releasing daily news) may find similar mechanisms that might be considered functional but also faster. Perhaps, consulting with colleagues in regard to the posted subject could be considered appropriate, especially consulting and advising with people considered as fair journalists and journalists with vast experience. Finally, regardless of how certain we are about what we have written; information must be checked several times. In this way, the danger of defamation charges and eventual accusations (or even indictments) shall be minimized. During the process of investigation and writing, the author also disposes of a great amount of information so she/he often takes available information “for granted” without prior explanations for their interconnections or the meaning in certain contexts.

This often makes a key and crucial difference, as far as information content that we release in public is concerned. It also may be considered as the reason why texts and articles may be wrongfully interpreted in public. In order to avoid such misinterpretations, we in CIN have so-called, “roundtable” discussion. This is the process where journalists (our colleagues) read the text loudly and make comments regarding the parts they find unclear.

During this process, texts often alter and change and if the text is additionally considered unclear to colleagues, the end reader cannot find it clear either. In order to protect from defamation, it is unnecessary to “spice” your text with additional phrases such as “criminal/s”, “forger/s”, “thief”, “criminal octopus” or using word games that may discredit and endanger reputation and dignity of the person your write about especially if you cannot prove and confirm your thesis. Finally, why would you do this if you are not sure what is actually the genuine truth? Journalist disposing of arguments and evidence has no need to transform her/his text into a political or marketing pamphlet.

It would represent an undoubted sign that the test provides no answers whatsoever; instead, it raises questions and issues and this cannot be considered as professional journalism, can it? Instead of bombastic labels and tags, identifying and naming the person would be enough, including the explanation what has been done by whom, because this is, after all, our job.

Everything else should be left to readers to make judgments as they will base and have a view of the story provided by you and thus consequently make a conclusion about this particular person. Critical public opinion is made in accordance with this principle and public opinion, again based on journalism quality provided by your editing office and special kind of working procedures, shall at least require the same process from others. Same applies for photo posting.

Humiliating photos of naked persons (as part of your stories) with fingers in their mouths or noses shall not improve the quality of your texts. It would be interesting for a day or two, but it shall not launch legal investigative stories against this particular person. Additionally, it may serve as the legal fundament to prosecution against the authors of such photos. Texts and articles without epithets, mustering, and specific qualifications and metaphors may seem boring, although boring does not mean anything bad in general. Boring is usually great if correct, true and confirmed information is transferred and shared, particularly if they can result in the court trials of those held legally responsible.

This text is a part of E-Bulletin–the third edition of the special serial of BHJ online bulletin implemented as part of the following project: Reinforcing Judicial Expertise on Freedom of Expression and the Media in South-East Europe (JUFREX).