Defamation, in law, is the act of communicating false statements about a person that result in damage to that person's reputation.
A defamatory statement is one which tends to lower a person in the estimation of other members of the society; or to expose him to hatred, contempt or ridicule; Or to cause other persons to shun or avoid him or her ; or to discredit a person's office, trade or profession; or to injure financial credit
The Nigerian Courts have defined defamation as any written or printed article published of and concerning a person without lawful justification or excuse and tending to expose him to public contempt, scorn, obloquy, ridicule, shame or disgrace, or intending to induce an evil opinion of him in the mind of right thinking persons, or injure him in his profession, occupation or trade is libelous and actionable, whatever the intention of the writer may have been. The word need not necessarily impute actual disgraceful conduct to the plaintiff; it is sufficient if they rendered him contemptible and ridiculous.
In Nigeria, in order for a defamation lawsuit to proceed, the comment must be defamatory to the general public, not simply 'a certain portion of the public.'
The plaintiff's reputation being lowered in the eyes of a particular segment of the public may not be considered defamation.
InEgbuna v. Amalgamated Press of Nigeria Ltd.  1 All N.L.R. 25 at p. 30., the term 'a particular section of the public' was defined as "a body of persons who subscribe to standards of conduct which are not those of society generally."
The Cybercrime (prohibition, prevention) Act 2015 that became effective on May 15, 2015 also provides as follows: 'any person who knowingly sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or that he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent commits an offence under this Act and shall be liable on conviction for a fine of not more than?7,000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of not more than three years or to both such fine and imprisonment"
It has been established that when an individual posts something on social media they are acting as publishers and can be sued for making false statements or defamatory comments.
Online defamation conforms to the same standard of proof as the generally known type of defamation.
How to Prove an Action for Defamation?
For an action in Defamation to succeed, the plaintiff must prove three important things:
- That the words were defamatory
- That the words referred to the plaintiff
- That the words were published (to at least one person other than the plaintiff).
TYPES OF DEFAMATORY STATEMENT
A defamatory statement can be of two types
The dissemination of a defamatory comment in written or permanent form is referred to as libel. This could be an email, a blog post, a tweet, a text or WhatsApp message, a newspaper article, a television or radio broadcast, a video clip uploaded to the internet, or even a handwritten letter. Libel could be filing a false domestic violence action against a spouse or sexual harassment complaint against a coworker, which could lead to any of the conditions for defamation.
Slander on the other hand refers to non-permanent forms of expression that involve a defamatory accusation, such as spoken comments or gestures. This could be a derogatory statement made in public or a private remark that is later reported. For instance if Mr. A in an interview says that Mr. C who is a branch manager to a bank is incompetent and a fraud, which causes the bank to suspend him. Mr. C knowing such a statement to be false can bring an action for defamation against Mr. A.
LIBEL ACTIONABLE PER SE
This means that whenever a libel is published, the law will presume that damages have been caused to the plaintiff's reputation and will award him general damages by way of compensation.
In any action for Libel, the Claimant must prove that the matter complained of:
- is defamatory
- refers to him or her
- has been published to a third person. In the case of Sketch v. Ajagbomkeferi 1989 1 NWLR (PT 100) 678 SC Wali JSC 695 para C-D, it was held that there are three tests in determining whether a statement is defamatory which are as follows:
- A statement concerning any person which exposes him to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided or which has a tendency to injure him in his office, profession, or trade.
- A false statement about a man to his discredit.
- Would the words tend to lower the Claimant in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally?
Once a case of libel has been established, the victim is entitled to general damages as compensation for the loss of his reputation and emotional distress, as well as aggravated damages if the author/publisher is unapologetic or remorseful, and his actions are calculated out of malice, or if he persists in an unsubstantiated plea of justification.
Who can bring a claim for defamation?
Individuals, businesses, and other legal entities can file a libel or slander claim if they feel the defamatory statement is directed at them.
In Nigeria, according to the various rules of Court, the Court with the requisite jurisdiction is the one where the defendant resides or carries on business. See Order 3 rule 4 of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory (Civil procedure) Rules, 2018. The same is provided for in Order 4 Rule 4(1) of the High Court of Lagos State Civil Procedure Rules, 2019.
It is the High Court of the State that has jurisdiction to adjudicate over defamation cases and thus by implication, also applies to Online defamation.
It is important to note that a statement is not defamatory if it is mere vulgar abuse. What does that mean? A vulgar abuse is an 'insulting' statement made in the heat of passion.
For example, in Bakare v. Ishola  W.N.L.R. 106, there was a fight between the plaintiff and the defendant. In the heat of passion, the defendant said in the presence of onlookers, "ole ni o, Elewon, iwo ti o sese ti ewon de yi." This in English meant, "You are a thief. Ex-convict. You who have just come out of prison." The court in this case held that the statement was mere vulgar abuse, and not defamatory.
There must have been publication of the words or materials complained about in order to bring a libel suit. The law recognizes and punishes the communication of defamatory information to third persons, not the actual writing or speaking of the defamatory information.
Publication refers to making the defamatory content known to someone other than the person about whom it was written or calling the attention of someone else to it after it has been written.
Any conduct by a person that conveys the defamatory connotation of the matter to third parties is also considered publication.
In law, any defamatory communication to someone other than the person who has been defamed might be considered publishing. Indeed, there is no requirement that there be any overt act; a person who allows defamatory comments to stay on premises under his control may be held accountable.
CRIMINAL DEFAMATION UNDER THE NIGERIAN LAW
A defamation matter is defined in section 373 of the criminal code as a matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing the person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his or her profession or trade by injury to his reputation.
Such matter may be expressed in spoken words or in words legibly marked on any substance whatever, or by any sign or object signifying such matter otherwise than by words and may be expressed either directly or by insinuation or irony. It is immaterial whether at the time of the publication of the defamatory matter, the person concerning whom such matter is published is living or dead.
Award of Damages
In the case of Basorun v. Ogunlewe 2000 1 NWLR (PT 640) 221 CA, the court held that defamation, spoken or written, is always actionable and even if damages is not proved, the law will infer damage needed to establish the action in the following circumstances:
- When the words are written or printed
- When the words spoken impute a crime punishable with imprisonment
- When they impute certain disease naturally excluding the patient from social intercourse
- When words spoken of a person following a calling, end spoken of him in that calling, which impute to him unfitness for or misconduct in that calling.
- Lawhub.com.ng – Defamation in torts: Definition, types, Distinctions
-  1 All N.L.R. 25 at p. 30.
- Cybercrime (Prohibition, prevention) Act 2015
- 1989 1 NWLR (PT 100) 678 SC
- DNL Legal & Style – Defamation under the Nigerian Law: The Rumbling call to criminalize Hate-Speech By Evans Ufeli.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.