from the call-of-litigation dept
You may recall that Activision’s Call of Duty games have already been the subject of a lawsuit by a historical figure. Previously, notorious figure Manuel Noriega brought a publicity rights case against the game company in the United States, claiming that the game depicted him without his permission. Pretty much everyone agreed that Activision was on solid First Amendment grounds in depicting a historical figure, including Rudy Giuliani, who galloped in to represent Activision and quickly got the case summarily dismissed.
You may have thought that would be the end of all that silliness, but you’d be wrong. Over in France, the family of an Angolan rebel also depicted in the CoD franchise is filing a defamation suit against Activision. Note that the defamation laws in France allow for a more liberal application than in the States, and that France doesn’t have the same strict concept of Free Speech that we have here.
The family of Jonas Savimbi, an Angolan rebel fighter, says Call of Duty: Black Ops II portrays him negatively—specifically, as a “barbarian” and “a big halfwit who wants to kill everybody,” according to the family’s lawyer Carole Enfert. They’re seeking one million euro in damages from the French arm of the video game publisher. The Guardian reports that France has very strict anti-defamation laws, even in cases where the allegedly defamed individual is dead—so his family may have a case. Savimbi was killed by the Angolan government in 2002.
So there are a couple of wrinkles that make this case different than the Noriega suit. First, as noted, Savimbi is dead. Very dead. And, while he most certainly is a notable historical figure, he doesn’t have Noriega’s dastardly reputation. Instead, Savimbi is best known for pushing out Portuguese colonialism in Angola and subsequently leading the fight against the MPLA, which is generally considered to be a genocidal group that had aimed at taking power in the country. Included in his reputation, however, is a firm unwillingness to engage in offered peace talks, choosing instead to continue a bloody civil war from which his nation still hasn’t recovered.
But it’s the final difference that makes this case so baffling: Savimbi is portrayed as a “good guy” in the game. The player is actually tasked with fighting alongside him. See the video below for yourself, with Savimbi’s appearance coming in around the six minute mark, and judge for yourself whether you think he’s portrayed in a negative way (note: this is a violent video game and the footage below includes some of that violence).
None of which is to say that any of this should even matter. Savimbi is a long-dead historical figure and artistic endeavors ought to have full freedom to portray him in the context of his place in history. That’s what the game attempts to do. That the family’s suit misses the mark in characterizing his portrayal as outlandishly negative in the context of the rest of the game is telling as far as their motives are concerned, but should be ultimately besides the point.
After all, if free expression is to mean anything at all, certainly it must allow for the discussion and portrayal of historical figures.