What is the meaning of defamation?
Defamation is when someone makes a false statement about you that lowers your reputation. The statement can be communicated in any form, on any platform - there is no distinction between an oral or written statement.
The first element when establishing defamation is whether or not, as a matter of fact, the statement is untrue. Abusive but accurate comments are not in and of themselves defamatory.
The second element is the result of the statement. Will society in general think less of you? Such slander could include suggestions of criminality, professional misconduct, financial unsoundness or significant mental or physical ill health.
When asking yourself if the remark made was defamatory, keep in mind that is must be relevant to, and reflective of society today. For example, unlike the early part of the 20th century, it is no longer the case that saying someone is homosexual is defamatory.
What can you do about it?
If the person making the defamatory statements is continuing to do so or threatening to continue to do so, you may be able to seek a court order called an interdict to prevent them from making the defamatory comments in the future.
You may also be able to claim damages. Damages include a payment for insult and injury to feelings. You may also be able to claim for patrimonial losses, for example, lost earnings should you lose your job as a result of the defamatory statement.
What might the defence be?
There are a number of defences open to the person who has made the statement. One such defence may be veritas – that the statement is true. Another is fair comment - for example a newspaper review of a play in which the writer gives the opinion that the performance of a particular actor was very poor. Another defence could be that the statement was a fair retort to a statement made by you or that the statement was made in the course of an argument.
Before commencing action - a word of warning
Damages for insult and injury to feelings are generally very low. Unless you have suffered significant patrimonial losses or are a high profile public figure (like Mr Sheridan), it is often not economical to bring a defamation claim to court as the costs of doing so are likely to exceed the damages that can be recovered.