‘Publishers who know they are publishing false news or are reckless about it, do not enhance any of the rationales for protecting free speech in our democracy. This is because lies do nothing to enhance truth-telling, individual autonomy or participatory democracy.’

Webber Wentzel’s Dr Dario Milo says the recent Gauteng High Court (Johannesburg) defamation ruling in Manuel v EFF and Others was a significant victory against fake news. In his analysis of the judgment on the Daily Maverick site, Milo says the ruling shows that there is a place for the law to hold those who publish fake news accountable.

‘It shows that the law has real bite when it comes to redressing the harm fake news causes to one’s dignity and reputation.’

Judge Elias Matojane held that Trevor Manuel had satisfied the requirements for an interdict in our law: he had a clear right to protect his dignity, had suffered and continued to suffer harm to his reputation through the widespread dissemination of the statement, and had no alternative remedy given the refusal to apologise or take down the statement. The judge ‘easily’ reached the conclusion that the EFF statement was defamatory.

The case, says Milo, is of great significance in our jurisprudence as:

* Going by way of application and not trial proceedings afforded Manuel much quicker and meaningful relief.

* The court’s application of basic defamation principles to social media should give pause to those knowingly, recklessly or unreasonably publishing false statements to a wide audience: there are serious legal consequences for publishing fake news. You remain accountable for your speech.

* There will be no deleterious consequences for free speech as a result of the judgment. It has always been the case that a publisher who publishes the truth (in the public interest) or acts reasonably will be protected. This judgment does nothing to undermine that protection.

* Laws can play a role in challenging fake news and reversing at least some of the harms the disinformation has caused.

Says Milo: ‘The law is only one tool – and an imperfect one at that – to address fake news, but the principles adopted in the Manuel case take our law in the right direction.’

Full analysis on the Daily Maverick site

Manuel v EFF and Others