Criminal defamation jail term has “chilling effect"

HARARE - Chief justice Godfrey Chidyausiku has queried the imposition of 20 years as the maximum prison term for publishing falsehoods, claiming this would intimidate the public from freely expressing themselves.

Chidyausiku said this yesterday following Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa’s opposition of a court ruling delivered in favour of former NewsDay editor Constantine Chimakure, Alpha Media Holdings group-editor-in-chief Vincent Kahiya and Zimbabwe Independent Publishers.

The journalists are accused of publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the State, following their arrest in 2009 after naming law enforcement agents who allegedly abducted some political and human rights campaigners in 2008.

“Certain provisions have a chilling effect for those seeking to express their freedom of expression,” Chidyausiku said, asking chief law officer Chris Mutangadura to justify with an example any jurisdiction where the law exists.

He said the world was moving away from the criminalisation of defamation, further questioning what the legislature intended to achieve by mentioning that 20 years was the maximum prison term for anyone who tells lies.

Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba also asked Mutangadura if an ordinary person in the street will not fear making certain statements because of the maximum prison term.

Malaba said the ruling delivered by the Constitutional Court stipulated that the government was only supposed to act on falsity when it has harmful effects and affects public interest.

The Constitutional Court last November delivered a landmark ruling and called for the invalidation of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act on the basis that it contravened section 20 (1) of the Constitution.

The court then called Mnangagwa to appear before it “to show cause why” the section of the code should not be invalidated.

Mnangagwa opposed the application, arguing that the relevant section of the law Section 31 (a) (iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which the court was seeking to invalidate, should be maintained.

He said that writing falsehoods about the uniformed forces and the president affects the safety of the public and might result in public disorder.

“Given that a private citizen has a right to reputation, the office of the President as headed by him personally may be diminished if the head is savaged falsely,” Mnangagwa said.

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