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Is CNN Liable for Wikileaks Defamation?

· Defamation,Definition,Litigation

Wikileaks has announced that it intends to sue CNN for defamation, after it aired a segment in which an ex-Deputy Director of the CIA described Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a "pedophile who lives in the Ecuadorian embassy in London."

After the segment, the CNN show, New Day, then tweeted out a link to the segment, without commenting on the substance of the interview.

But does Wikileaks have a defamation case against CNN?

First question: is this libel or slander? The CIA official spoke the words on television, so, if they were defamation, then they would be slander. Libel is written and slander is oral.

Legally, the definition of defamation is a false and defamatory statement concerned the plaintiff, in which the publisher acted at least negligently in making it, and the words caused provable damage. For someone like Assange, who would likely be considered a public figure, the speaker would likely have to have actually known that the statement was false.

An in-depth article done in October by McClatchy states that the pedophile accusation is both false and suspicious. If it can be shown that the CIA official knew that the accusation was false - or if there was enough information in the public that he should have been aware that it was false - then the statement is likely defamatory.

And even though Assange has been taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to avoid being extradited to Sweden to face rape charges, the accusation of pedophilia clearly would go much further in damaging his reputation.

But can CNN be responsible for what the CIA official said?

For the statements made during the interview itself, that is not likely.

If you only transmit or publish someone else's defamatory comments, you are only liable for the defamation if you knew, or had reason to know, that the comments were defamatory. Unless CNN reviewed with the CIA official beforehand what the official planned to say, CNN could not reasonably have known the words would be spoken.

CNN's behavior afterwards is another story. 

Well aware that the comments were in the interview, CNN still publicized the interview on Twitter and on its website. And even though CNN has now issued a statement declaring those words to be false, that action can only help limit CNN's damage, not escape liability altogether.

But can Wikileaks sue for words that were said about Assange, and not the Wikileaks organization itself? If the words can be shown to damage Wikileaks and cause it to be held in lower esteem, then, yes, Wikileaks can sue. And reasonably, the accusation that Wikileaks' leader is a pedophile would certainly seem to taint the organization itself.

So all in all, it looks like a good time for CNN to lawyer up.

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