HARARE - Zimbabwe’s highest court has ruled that a criminal defamation law which criminalises publishing falsehoods was unconstitutional.
The judgment delivered yesterday by the full bench of the Constitutional Court declared the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9:23 as ultra vires the Constitution.
The ruling means Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa has lost his bid to defend the law that criminalises publishing falsehoods. The court gave him a chance to respond and show cause why the law should not be removed.
The Constitutional Court judges said it was the duty of the minister to show that the legislation was reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.
“His or her (minister)’s task is to assist the court to arrive at a just decision on the question of the constitutional validity of the legislation,” the ruling said.
“It is ordered that Section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (Chapter 9:23 was in contravention of Section 20(1) of the former Constitution and therefore void.”
Journalists from privately-owned newspaper Zimbabwe Independent challenged the law following their arrest for reporting that law enforcement agents had abducted some political and human rights campaigners in 2008.
Journalists Constantine Chimakure and Vincent Kahiya questioned the constitutionality of the section under which they were charged.
Following the challenge, the Constitutional Court in November last year summoned Mnangagwa to justify why the law should not be scrapped.
Mnangagwa, who was represented by government’s chief law officer Chris Mutangadura, defended the legislation, claiming publishing falsehoods about the uniformed forces affects the safety of the public and might result in public disorder.
“Section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Code had the effect of interfering with the exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” the court ruled after summoning Mnangagwa.
“It found that the applicants had discharged the onus of showing that Section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Code was not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society for the protection of the public interest in public order or public safety.
“On the return day, no affidavit was filed by the minister. What was filed was a lengthy document containing a critical review of the whole judgment of the court.”
Dozens of journalists have been arrested in the past on criminal defamation charges or under the Criminal Code, which could be grounds for jailing journalists publishing falsehoods.