Opinion: Coward comment posters

POSTED: 04/8/14 12:54 AM

That the political hunting season is on is no news. Political parties are getting more active than they have been in the past four years to make voters aware of their existence. Mudslinging is also in full swing; some people seem to think that this is part of the game, and therefore okay. But it is not.

Politicians going after politicians are one thing. The game becomes different when individual citizens offer their comments. Mind you – there is nothing wrong with criticizing decisions made or opinions offered by politicians or their parties. That would be a welcome addition to the public debate.

Unfortunately, there are some characters in our community who prefer to smear others in such debates without revealing their own identity.

This is how we found on an infamous local gossip website, published last Monday, a press release from the United People’s party in which it expresses concerns about election fraud. It triggered a lot of comments –and that’s fine. What is not fine however is that one of the anonymous posters used the name of our staff reporter Jason Lista to badmouth the UP and party leader Theo Heyliger.

What is wrong with these people? We are not writing this to defend our reporter – he is quite capable of fending for himself. We are writing this because in the coming months many others will fall victim to the same tactics: obnoxious comments attributed to someone who did not make them.

This is a form of internet guerilla warfare for which there seems to be no defense. At best, someone who feels offended by the theft of her or his name could go to court and file a civil lawsuit. The question is of course who you’re going to sue if you do not know who you are dealing with.

In our opinion, there is a simple solution for this situation. Newspapers are responsible for everything they publish. It is not necessary to know the name of a particular writer to be able to sue a newspaper over a report that, say, defames one’s character. The civil code offers ample instruments to do this – and fair enough. Newspapers have a responsibility and if they fall short of expectations, they will be called on it. Sometimes this will be done with an angry letter to the editor, sometimes the plaintiff will go to court.

The same is of course true for websites – whether they are sincere news sites or whether their prime commodity is unvarnished gossip.

The road to the courthouse is open for complaints against websites that publish defaming articles or comments. In our opinion, this includes comments from readers, because the website remains responsible for their publication. Site operators cannot hide behind the fact that they did not write certain comments – they are always responsible for everything they publish on the web.

The good people at the Huffington Post have understood this responsibility. This site requires a confirmation of the identity of visitors who wish to post a comment. Of course, this does not excuse the Post from its responsibility for publishing comments. Web sites that leave their doors wide open for anyone to spout insulting or insinuating dirt towards others, are in our view vulnerable to prosecution.

Victims of internet harassment ought to be aware of this. Cowardly anonymous (im)posters may feel safe behind their computer screens but injured parties have legal instruments at their disposal to take the publisher to task – be it a newspaper or a website.

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