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Journalist loses appeal over order to pay ex-Osaka governor damages for defamatory retweet

Journalist Yasumi Iwakami speaks during a press conference in Osaka on June 23, 2020. (Mainichi/Takumi Fujikawa)

OSAKA -- The Osaka High Court on June 23 dismissed an appeal by a journalist over a ruling that the act of retweeting a defamatory post makes one liable for compensation, in a rare court decision in Japan over the controversial issue.

The high court upheld the lower court ruling that ordered journalist Yasumi Iwakami to pay 330,000 yen (about $3,097) in compensation to former Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto for retweeting a message suggesting staff working under the administrator had been driven to suicide.

"In a case where the original tweet is determined to undermine the social valuation of others, the act of retweeting is also subject to liability regardless of the background and intentions of the original post," the high court ruled.

Hashimoto brought the case to court demanding Iwakami pay 1.1 million (about $10,323) yen for retweeting a third person's post in October 2017 that stated, "Mr. Hashimoto drove a senior (prefectural) official to suicide while in office as governor." Although Iwakami subsequently deleted his retweet, Hashimoto claimed that the journalist's retweeting gave the public the impression that he was the kind of person who commits power harassment.

The June 23 ruling judged that the content of the post retweeted by Iwakami "cannot be recognized to be true, nor is there any reason to believe it is true."

In light of the potential nature of online posts including retweets going viral in a short period of time, the court said, "When making a post, the user is required to exercise proper caution over whether its expressions undermine the reputation of others including their integrity and fame." The court then concluded that Iwakami's retweet constituted defamation.

The high court upheld the September 2019 Osaka District Court ruling that ordered Iwakami to pay 330,000 yen in compensation to Hashimoto, throwing away the journalist's appeal against the lower court ruling.

Iwakami said he is considering appealing the latest verdict. "Opinions critical of public figures should be accepted," he commented following the ruling.

As the use of social media has prevailed, there is an increasing number of cases where posts containing defamation of individuals and false rumors go viral on the internet. As it is expected that there will be more cases of victims of such posts going to court, experts are warning against easily retweeting others' posts.

Following a road rage incident on the Joban Expressway in Ibaraki Prefecture in eastern Japan in August 2019, a woman unrelated to the case was named on the internet as someone who was aboard the suspect's vehicle and the false information went viral. The woman filed a suit with the Tokyo Summary Court in October that year against a then member of the Toyota Municipal Assembly in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi, demanding that the politician pay 1.1 million yen in damages for reposting her picture on Facebook along with a comment saying, "Please share this post so she can be arrested soon."

In a separate case, journalist Shiori Ito, who publicly identified herself as a victim of sexual violence, also filed a damages suit with the Tokyo District Court earlier this month against two men who retweeted a Twitter post containing an illustration defaming her, as well as the cartoonist who made the original post. "Unless I take action, the posts could spread further," Ito said.

Hosei University professor Hiroyuki Fujishiro, who is versed in issues surrounding social networking services, commented, "The gravity of damage from defamatory and discriminatory posts has come to light as victims raised their voices, and the awareness that the act of sending out information, including retweeting, entails responsibility is becoming common in society."

Lawyer Satoshi Fukazawa, who is knowledgeable about the issue of online defamation, said, "Those who make malicious posts that hurt others should be held liable." However, he added, "We also need to consider the possibility that holding someone liable for compensation just for introducing someone else's posts could wither (the freedom of) expression."

(Japanese original by Takumi Fujikawa, Osaka City News Department)

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