Re-enacting the parable of David and Goliath was the last thing on Tamer Azab’s mind when he sat down at his laptop this August to set up a Facebook group. Though unfortunately for the young Egyptian web designer, he was about to unwittingly place himself at the centre of a media maelstrom from which he’s only just about to be extricated.
The formidable giant in Azab’s story is Tarek Nour, a stalwart of Egypt’s media scene. Through Tarek Nour Holdings he owns the nation’s largest homegrown advertising agency, Tarek Nour Communications, which also encompasses a number of TV channels. It was a series of ads launching a new addition to the Nour TV stable, Al Kahera Wal Nas, that caught Azab’s eye. The promotional ads for the channel were witty, succint and, as Azab noticed, strangely familiar. A YouTube search confirmed his suspicions; all the ads for the channel were blatantly plagiarised from pre-existing international work.
A shocked Azab opened a Facebook group, ‘Stolen Promos’, lamenting local creative standards and posted links to both sets of commercials, provoking a huge response of suitably outraged comments.
Initially, Tarek Nour Communications claimed the work was intended as a ‘spot the difference’ competition and Azab received a formal legal request to remove some of the more inflammatory comments, which he immediately adhered to. But there was more to come. On 25 October, 22-year-old Azab was arrested at his home and accused of defaming Tarek Nour himself. He was interred for several days at Cairo’s Omraneyya police station.
The resulting media storm saw the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information denounce Azab’s arrest within an official statement. “Instead of investigating the incident of infringement of intellectual property disclosed by the press and internet activist, the police terrorised the activist in favour of powerful businessmen.Whether this prejudiced measure was taken voluntarily by the police or upon request from Tarek Nour, the law has been totally wasted and manipulated by the very guards of law.”
A lawsuit Nour filed against Azab was later changed from defamation and libel to “disturbing others” after a police investigation found no evidence of the prior accusations. It is understood that the situation is about to reach an out-of-court conclusion.
Questions concerning Egyptian law enforcement aside, it’s a prime example of the potential pitfalls associated with the social media space. Unsuspecting users can put themselves in the legal line of fire as Mark Hill, of UAE-based media law specialists The Rights Lawyers, explains: “Though they differ from country to country, one of the basic principles that you’re going to find in defamation is that it requires a publication. That just basically means that it’s been said or published to a third party, so that’s where the concept of publication comes from. So obviously if you’re bandying it round on the internet in one form or another, whether it’s going out on a messaging forum or a Facebook context or Twitter, that is automatically going to cross that first hurdle of publication,” says Hill.
“People tend not to think of the chat messaging context with the same degree of gravity as they might were they going into a paper publication. Obviously a newspaper or a magazine will think very carefully about what it is publishing. Publications tend to have clearance mechanisms, they have protocols in place, they are very aware that the printed word carries these inherent risks.” That said, there is a defence factor, he adds: “If the statements being made are true, no matter what the statements are, provided they are true, then there is no defamation.”
International law dictates defamation is a personal slur, which can only occur towards individuals. Organisations that comprise more than 10 people cannot be defamed.
If, as in the case of Tamer Azab and Tarek Nour, the complainant is perceived as the far more powerful party, the resulting PR fallout could turn out to be more damaging than the original alleged slight, says Tara Rogers, managing partner, Mojo PR. “Panic leads to over-reaction and, given the viral nature of the internet, can lead to a bigger problem than the one originally identified,” says Rogers. “As in life, companies need to choose their battles. Some are worth recognising and responding to with consideration and focus, others need to be monitored and noted… and ignored.”