Press groups applaud striking of libel law

HARARE - Media practitioners have applauded the Constitutional Court for ruling that criminal defamation is not a justifiable law in Zimbabwe and must be struck off the statutes.

The Constitutional Court last week scrapped criminal libel which critics say has been employed to restrict the freedom of the press.

The full bench of the Constitutional Court ruled that criminalising defamation was harsh and excessive.

“It is not necessary to criminalise defamatory statements,” the ruling said.

“Accordingly, it is inconsistent with the freedom of expression guaranteed by (the) constitution.”

This was after former Standard editor Nevanji Madanhire and a reporter challenged the law following their 2011 arrest for reporting that Zanu PF MP Munyaradzi Kereke’s hospital was bankrupt and failing to pay its workers.

The highest court in the land ruled that any person who felt defamed should seek civil remedies and called for the scrapping of criminal defamation laws.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya, Misa-Zimbabwe director, said they welcomed the key judicial points that the Constitutional Court noted in the judgment, which dovetail with the press freedom group’s longstanding observations that criminal defamation was an undemocratic law used as a tool to muzzle the media by public officials.

Ngwenya said criminalising defamation results in harmful consequences such as the chilling possibility of arrest, detention, as well as imprisonment.

He said some of the key and noteworthy points stemming from the judgment were that criminalising defamation was a disproportionate remedy to the objective of protection of reputations and rights and freedoms of other persons.

“It stifles and silences free-flow of information in the public domain resulting in an uninformed citizenry on matters of public significance,” Ngwenya said.

“It is unnecessary to criminalise defamatory statements. The country’s civil remedies for defamation afford ample compensatory redress for injury to one’s reputation or dignity.
While Misa-Zimbabwe commended the judgment and in particular the observations it made on this issue, Ngwenya said the organisation was concerned with some seemingly salient issues raised in the ruling, which the court noted were “matters for argument and consideration as and when appropriate...”

“In particular, the court’s observations that the right to freedom of expression as conferred by Section 61 (of the new constitution) ‘ to be more narrowly construed as being subordinate to the value of human dignity...’ and also that ‘it might also be argued that the offence of criminal defamation is a justifiable limitation on the freedom of expression as envisaged by Section 86 of the new constitution....’”

Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), said the union commends the role played by journalists in challenging a law which went against the rights of journalists to disseminate information and that had for long interfered with the work of media practitioners in Zimbabwe.

“The ruling by the constitutional court can be viewed as a step towards creating an environment where journalists are able to operate professionally and effectively without any hindrances,” Dongozi said.

There was now recognition that a simple dispute is not solved using police and other tools to harass journalists but through routes such as civil action.

Journalist Njabulo Ncube welcomed the development as a step in the right direction in the promotion and protection of freedom of expression and media freedom guaranteed in the new Constitution.

“Criminal defamation is antithetical to a constitutional democracy such as ours,” he said.

“There can never be justification for a law that has its roots in the 13th Century dictatorship of the monarchs to remain in our modern democracy.

“This is because criminal defamation imposes criminal sentences for expressing oneself. Surely, unpalatable contents of one’s expression cannot be equated to crimes such as rape, murder, robbery among others which attract jail terms.

“To make matters worse, the law is simply a tool used by those in office to insulate themselves through threats of jailing journalists when they know that there has been hardly a conviction under that law.

“They know that the threat of a jail term can easily send a chilling effect on journalists, resulting in self-censorship and creation of sacred cows among those in power. It is not clear if the government will move with speed to strike off the law.”

He said if the law was annulled, then the onus will now be on journalists to practice responsible journalism for the benefit of the nation at large.

“The onus will also rest on the profession to police its works as well as chide those found dabbling in unethical conduct such as publishing falsehoods and fabricating content,” he said.

“Upon nullification of this offending law, the profession needs organisations such as the VMCZ and MMPZ to up their game so as to keep the profession on its toes as far as respect of ethics are concerned.

“Failure to cover our backs as a profession would boomerang against us, and probably resulting in the powers-that-be plucking the law from their drawers and re-using it against the profession.”

Journalist Chakanyuka Bosha said there was a good chance that the unjust law would be struck down as there appears to be some political will to do so if the encouraging overtures from minister Jonathan Moyo were anything to go by.

“The removal of that law will no doubt enable journalists to operate without fear and be more robust in their work with no threat of arrest hovering over their heads,” Bosha said.

“No form of justification is acceptable for criminalising journalism. Let those offended by the media use other available avenues such as the VMCZ among others for redress.”

Media practitioner Rashweat Mukundu said the constitutional court ruling on criminal defamation was a positive development that should free media workers from the shackles of insult laws, which protect the powerful and connected in society.

“Instead of seeking protection under criminal defamation laws, the powerful in society must open themselves to more scrutiny as they make decisions be they economic, political or social that have far reaching consequences for all citizens, either positive or negative,” Mukundu said.

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