News about the arrest of two journalists who were incarcerated in a Port-Harcourt prison for defaming a pastor caused agitations in some quarters. Some people queried the Nigerian Justice System for arresting the journalists for what they considered to be a purely civil wrong.

Not many people are aware that there exists criminal liability for defamation; defamation is a civil wrong as well as a crime. The right to institute an action in court for defamation lies with the individual in the case of defamation as a civil wrong whereas in the case of defamation as a crime, the state prosecutes the offence.

Defamatory matter is matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.[1] In earlier articles written on defamation, we explained what constitutes defamation; you can read that up if you have not already done so.

Defamatory words may be spoken, or written. They can be inferred from signs or objects, or may be expressed either directly or by insinuation of irony.

A person can be criminally liable for defaming a dead person; however, the consent of the Attorney General of the Federation must be obtained before criminal proceedings can be instituted or commenced.

It should be remembered that defamation is complete upon publication; and publication as defined under the Criminal Code Act refers to bringing the defamatory words (whether written or spoken) to the knowledge of the person defamed or another person.[2] The offence of Criminal defamation is therefore committed when defamatory matter is published either by speaking defamatory words in the hearing of the person defamed or in the hearing of any other person, exhibiting defamatory words in public, or causing it to be read or seen, or showing or delivering it, or causing it to be shown or delivered, with intent that it may be read or seen by the person defamed or by any other person.

A person who publishes defamatory matter is liable to one year imprisonment, where the person who publishes the defamatory matter is aware that it is false, he is liable to two years imprisonment. In a case where a person blackmails another with the threat of publishing or refraining from publishing defamatory matter in order to extort or derive some benefit from the person so threatened or blackmailed, the punishment is seven years imprisonment.

It is recommended that when a person is in doubt as to whether civil or criminal liability may arise from the publication of certain words, then it is imperative to get legal advice before such words are published.

There are certain defences available to a person charged with the crime of defamation.

[1] See section 373 of the Criminal Code Act

[2] Section 373(a ) &( b) of the Criminal Code Act