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A recent ruling in a Portland, Oregon Court decided that a blogger cannot claim to be a journalist and is, therefore, not protected by normal rules (for example to protect sources). The blogger was ordered to pay US$2.5-million in penalties.
The ruling was interesting because it failed to consider just how much the world has changed. The ways in which we transmit information interact with each other have both changed in a phenomenally
A large section of the online world receives its news from Twitter and blogs. In fact, I would dare to say the election protests in Iran changed the way the populace in that country communicate with each other. This was again shown in the protests and regime change in Egypt in 2011.
And when a plane crashed in the Hudson River in 2009, it was on Twitter before the news agencies picked up the story.
Even with these rapid changes in the way we process and consume news and media, it is interesting to note that the law in a number of countries still hasn’t caught up. To date, bloggers and tweeters have no protection for their blog-posts because they’re still not considered mainstream.
In countries like South Africa the situation becomes even more complex, with the passing of legislation like the Protection of Information Bill. Now that South Africa’s government is firmly focused on removing the protection of the law against journalists who reveal corruption (citing National Security concerns) it means that bloggers would certainly be on the wrong side of the law should they reveal any state secrets. It is not inconceivable for a South African version of Wikileaks to develop should the ruling government insist on passing the Bill into law. Corruption, shrouded as a State Secret, would have to be revealed anonymously to protect journalists and bloggers.
So can bloggers take action to protect themselves?
I approached the South African National Editors Forum(SANEF) — an organisation which claims to be dedicated both to protecting media freedom and ensuring quality journalism — for comment. In fact, I asked them if it were possible for me to register my blog (an online publication) with SANEF. They told me that they had no policy for this. After a few prying questions, it became clear the person on the other side of the line decided to fob me off to the Audit Bureau of Circulations(ABC). I was told that if I could get a certificate from the ABC, they would only then recognise me as a legitimate publication.
The ABC, however, has no policy on online publications. I was told me that it is under consideration, and has been since 2009, but that no concrete steps or decisions have been made in certifying the readership of online publications. Also, they were unwilling to accept my Google Analytics as proof of readership (I had to explain what Google Analytics is!)
As things stand, a normal blogger, not affiliated to one of the big publication houses in South Africa cannot join SANEF, or the ABC. There is no protection should you decide to blow the whistle on a neighbour, your boss, the cops or the government.
But what of personal blogging attacks?
I’ve been around long enough to see personal attacks unfold on Twitter. I’ve seen people throw dangerous accusations around on blog-posts, even mentioning people by name. A quick chat to a few attorney friends revealed that anything said on Twitter, Facebook or a blog-post could be used in court should it defame someone.
There’s no protection clause for a blogger at all. And even if the statement is true, ending up in court to prove your innocence can be both costly and time consuming.
The world has changed dramatically and yet it seems the legal framework hasn’t been updated yet. Nor, do I think, will it be for some time.