South African WhatsApp users beware

Adam Catzavelos is facing crimen injuria charges in South Africa and potential prosecution in Greece after sharing a video containing a racial slur on WhatsApp.

The video, where Catzavelos celebrated the absence of black people at his holiday destination in Greece, was shared with a select group of his friends.

One of the people to who he sent the video distributed it and posted it online, which caused Catzavelos to be publicly shamed for his comments and ultimately face criminal charges.

While some commentators said the person who distributed the video did a good thing to expose racism, it raises questions about the legal implications surrounding this case.

Sending a WhatsApp a message to one person

Nailah van der Schyff, director at boutique law firm VDS Inc, told MyBroadband if you send a message to a single person, you cannot attract liability for defamation.

She explained that defamation is defined as the wrongful, intentional publication of a defamatory statement concerning another person.

“Publication means that more than one person – hence a third party(ies) outside the defamer and the victim – has to have seen the defamatory statement for it to constitute defamation.”

However, if the person who received the message decides to publish it, they can be held liable.

“Those who published the defamatory statement could still be held liable despite them not being the author of the said statement,” van der Schyff said.

Sending a message to a WhatsApp group

If you send a message to a WhatsApp group and one person leaks the message or video, both the author and the person who leaked it can be held liable.

“This is based on the same principle above – the publication of a defamatory statement,” said van der Schyff.

“Whether the message was of a personal nature or otherwise, if the message published is seen by more than one person and the legal elements of the definition above are proved, you could be held liable for defamation,” she said.

In 2016, a Facebook user was found guilty by the North Gauteng High Court because he did not remove a defamatory statement posted on his Facebook wall which he was aware of.

This, van der Schyff explained, allowing his name to be associated with the defamatory content and exposed him to legal action.

Be careful what you say or share on WhatsApp

Van der Schyff gave a few guidelines to people who send WhatsApp messages to friends or groups to ensure they stay on the right side of the law.

  1. Make sure that the content is not defamatory in that it has the effect of damaging another’s reputation.
  2. If you are the administrator of a group, make sure you educate the members of the group as to what is appropriate to share or post. As an administrator, you could potentially also be held liable for what is shared on the group.
  3. If defamatory statements are posted or shared, make sure that you immediately have them deleted and advise everyone that such statements are not condoned or allowed.

Now read: WhatsApp admins beware – You can be sued for posts in your group

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South African WhatsApp users beware