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2. As different persons may have different interpretations, levels of acceptance, and sensitivity to any words that might be used, what standard is used to determine if words contain defamatory meanings? Would the context, circumstances, or the place where the words are published have any impact on whether or not the matter may be considered defamatory?

There are many words or sentences that we may use loosely in our daily communication so that a single word or sentence may have more than one meaning. However, if any of the meanings of those words is defamatory, the writer or speaker may be liable for defamation.


Whether a particular meaning is defamatory or not varies with time, place, the context in which it is used, and the state of public opinion at the time. Defamation cases tried in the Court of First Instance of the High Court may be tried by a jury. Whether the meaning of the words is defamatory would therefore be a matter for the jury to decide. If there is no jury, then the matter will be left for the judge to decide.


Sometimes, the meaning of certain statements may not be easy to identify and to understand. Certain special knowledge or understanding of a particular matter may be required in order to understand the exact intended meaning of the statement.


There was a case in the 1950s in which a man was walking along Jaffe Road in Wanchai. He entered a particular room from the street. A red light inside the room was seen from outside. A newspaper reported this incident. Although we might not think there is anything wrong with this, the man sued the newspaper. The reason he sued was that during that period of time there were lots of vice establishments in Jaffe Road, and every vice establishment there had a red light inside it. Therefore, at that time, if one was said to have gone into a room with a red light, it meant that one went there seeking a prostitute (a meaning which can be considered defamatory).


In another case in 1987 ( Li Yau Wai Eric v Genesis Films Limited), a gentleman was persuaded by a film producer to participate in the casting of a future film. The gentleman agreed and the staff of the film company took some photographs of him. Subsequently, he discovered that one of his photos had appeared in a Cantonese film twice without his consent. The film director had put the gentleman's photo on a shrine (a place for worshiping a family ancestor) in the movie so that he appeared to be a dead person. The film was screened over a thousand times in Hong Kong cinemas. That gentleman was very angry and sued the film company for using his photo for an unauthorised purpose which exposed him to ridicule, and hence, defamation. He succeeded.


In the pleadings of a case involving defamation, any particular alleged meanings of words involved must be clearly set out together with all special circumstances that each party is relying on.

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