One of the numerous benefits of the internet is the democratisation of the publication of opinions. No matter what you want to put across to a wide audience, and the language in which such is couched, there will always be a website willing to publish you. In a worst case scenario, you can start your own blog at virtually no cost. In the days of yore, to get your opinion published, you needed to satisfy an elitist editor somewhere, that you really know what you are talking about, that the material is not libellous and that it is written in at least passable prose. In this sense the internet has helped to demystify the shenanigans of the literati.
A number of Nigeria-focused websites have emerged to provide a platform for Nigerians to exchange ideas about their country and ventilate their love for putting their opinions across. While some are clearly tabloids and driven by a certain political agenda or love for sensationalism, others like the Nigeria Village Square are truly non-ideological and will usually publish different perspectives on a given issue. However, as would be expected in any forum bringing together people from different academic, social, ethnic, religious and emotional intelligence backgrounds, the quality of the contributions could vary remarkably. It is possible to identify at least five broad categories of contributors on NVS:
The analysts: These are often contributors, who, from their writings, will leave you in no doubt that they know what they are talking about, and that their write-ups have benefited from some research and good proofreading. In their writings, they try as much as possible to be objective, interrogating various points of views in an argument before drawing a conclusion.
Informed commentators: While the informed commentators may not really tell you anything new, they tend to have good narrative skills – using very compelling prose or anecdotes to tell familiar stories. Many of the analysts and informed contributors who write for the NVS tend to have academic pedigree and also maintain regular column in established newspapers. Their contributions on NVS are often a republication of their weekly or periodic newspaper articles.
Privileged Contributors: Periodically some contributors with privileged information such as serving or former top government functionaries or respected Nigerians contribute articles that give information that may not have been previously available in the public domain.
Conscientious objectors: These contributors are usually not afraid to flow against the tide, consistently taking ‘unpopular’ positions either on principle or on ethnic or ideological convictions. Some of the conscientious objectors could fit into the category of informed contributors or even analysts.
The Grandstanders or ‘Internet Warriors’: Though quite a few in this category can write reasonably well, their defining feature seems to be the use of caustic and abusive language to make up for their lack of writing or research skills. They are usually ubiquitous in forums, frequently throw adult tantrums to be noticed, mistake abusive and insulting language for courage, and often go by various aliases. I believe it is this set of people that Professor Pat Utomi had in mind when he labelled some contributors on websites as ‘Internet Warriors’.
The above classification is of course merely an ideal type, because in real life, the boundary between the categories could be quite fluid.
I believe that the activities of Internet Warriors worldwide have helped to re-enact the debate on the appropriate interface between a libertarian do – nothing course for the freedom offered by the internet and the need for an authoritarian censorship. In a recent book, Free Speech v Reputation: Public Interest Defence in English and American Law of Defamation (2010), I discussed the balancing acts in American and English jurisdictions between free speech interests (seen as the foundational block of democracy) and the need to protect people’s reputation (universally seen as part of human dignity). While most traditional publishers in the Western world have the resources and the foresight to libel-read for their print editions, and strictly regulate commentaries on the online versions of their publications, many of the Nigerian news websites, understandably cannot afford this.
For many Nigerians, there are increasing concerns on how to prevent the Internet Warriors from damaging their hard-earned reputations. There are a number of available options:
One, is to approach one of the increasing number of companies in Europe and America that offer online reputation management. You could use Google to find some of these companies and then check them out before engaging them.
Two, it is now established that Internet Warriors could be successfully sued for defamatory remarks on the web. In fact as early as 2000, the UK internet Service Provider Demon Internet settled a libel case by agreeing to pay one Laurence Godfrey the sum of £15,000 pounds (plus legal costs) after defamatory postings about him appeared in news groups hosted by Demon. The case, which was the first of its kind to go before English courts, rested primarily on whether Demon could be treated as the publisher of the offensive material.
Three, though bringing defamatory proceedings are generally expensive and tortuous, in the UK, the extension in the use of CFAs (Conditional Fee Agreements) – also known as ‘no-win, no fee’ arrangements – between lawyers and their clients to defamation cases in 1999, could help people who wish to bring proceedings against Internet Warriors.
Four, contrary to some belief, you do not need to be a company or a ‘big shot’ to be sued for online libel. In 2006 for instance, a political argument that erupted in a remote corner of cyberspace descended into vicious name-calling. Michael Keith-Smith, a former Conservative party member in the UK successfully sued a college teacher with whom he was having an online debate on the merits of military action in Iraq after the woman variously labeled him a “lard brain” a “Nazi”, a “racist bigot” and a “nonce”. He was awarded £10,000 in damages and legal costs of £7,200. The case was one of the first of its kinds between two private individuals to go to court.
Five, given the cross border nature of the internet, you may actually pick and choose where you want to bring libel proceedings against an Internet Warrior. In 2002 for instance, an Australian court ruled that a Melbourne-based businessman, Joseph Gutnik, could sue an American website owned by Dow Jones in Australia because he read the offensive material in his native town. This means that you can choose to sue for online libel in the UK (if you read the material in the UK, which is regarded as the defamation capital of the world), with a chance of using the ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers – if they assess you have a reasonable chance of succeeding.
I am not, by the above, arguing for a return to the English Victorian era when many insulted nobles brought libel proceedings on matters as trite as being accused of cheating in a card game. While I believe that libels and threats of libel actions could undermine the democratic process by ‘chilling’ free speech, however free speech without the necessary self censorship would leave individuals and companies robbed of their hard earned reputation and dignity. As Shakespeare would put it in the play, Othelo:
‘Who steals my purse steals trash;
‘tis something, nothing…
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.’
I believe that the change we all desire can actually start with us: How about agreeing to disagree without making ourselves disagreeable?