Dear Corruption Watch,
Journalists use the word "alleged" a lot – sometimes correctly, other times ensuring that reporters are pawns in a vicious game. Does someone involved in corruption have to be formally charged before one may say allegations have been made?
Let us start by confirming the importance of the press to provide a platform for the scrutiny of public officials and other forces that shape society, enabling us to make informed judgments on the issues of the day.
When reporting on criminal or unlawful conduct, there are three possible levels of meaning. The person involved could be:
- Guilty of the criminal offence or misconduct; or
- Reasonably suspected of the offence or misconduct.
- The third level is that there are possible grounds for a police investigation.
It is important for journalists to be clear, and when allegations have the potential to be defamatory, that they have to be justified.
The courts have said that a "reasonable reader of ordinary intelligence" would not equate a statement that a person is suspected by the police of committing a crime with a statement that the person has actually committed the crime.
In terms of whether there is a limit to what journalists may write in exposing corruption and the extent to which the word "alleges" is adequate, it depends on the reasonableness of the media party concerned. A media defendant will not be held liable for the publication of false or defamatory statements if, in publishing the statements, defamatory or otherwise, it acted without negligence and, in all circumstances, the publication of the defamatory material was reasonable.
The use of the word ''alleged" is one of the factors in determining the reasonableness of the article or publication. Allegations that cannot be positively confirmed prior to publication should not be portrayed as facts. They should rather be reported on as allegations that are yet to be confirmed.
Cautious language should be used and words must be carefully chosen to reflect the correct meaning.
Here is a list of some of the factors relevant to determining the reasonableness of an article or publication:
- The nature of the allegations. Publication of the allegations must be in the public interest. Where political discussion is concerned, greater leeway is allowed.
- The source of the information and whether it is reliable. Did the source have first-hand knowledge of the information? Was the information corroborated by an alternative source? Does the source have an ulterior motive?
- Was the subject given the right to reply and a reasonable opportunity to do so? Have all the material allegations been put to the subject for comment?
- The circumstances of the publication. Was there an urgent need to publish the article before the truth could be established in a positive way?
The tone of the article must reflect the extent to which allegations have been positively established to be credible. For example, when there is a pressing need to publish before positively establishing the truth of allegations, the tone of the article should report on the allegations as allegations that raise questions, or call for further investigation, rather than present allegations as statements of fact.
It is not necessary for someone to be formally charged before allegations of corruption may be published about them. However, the more serious the allegations made, the greater the duty on the journalist to make sure that the allegations that are ultimately published are truthful, accurate and fair.
Otherwise, he or she may well find themselves caught in the snare of revengeful or strategic name-calling by an injured party.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times