Victory against criminal defamation law in Zimbabwe, but the South African fight continues

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) welcomes the recent judgment of the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe striking down the offence of criminal defamation.

Writing for the court, Judge Bharat Patel traced criminal defamation’s Roman roots in order to describe its outdated nature, and invoked international legal instruments to conclude that criminal defamation is “not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society”. 

Patel quoted extensively from an article written by amaBhungane’s advocacy coordinator Vinayak Bhardwaj and Webber Wentzel media lawyer Ben Winks arguing that civil remedies are preferable to criminal sanctions in defamation.

Introducing the distinction between civil and criminal defamation, the judge wrote that the article “commendably highlighted” the difference between the two and endorsed its core argument of the former being the more suitable remedy.

The judgment was unanimously by all seven judges sitting.

It is for reasons highlighted in the Bhardwaj-Winks article that amaBhungane has joined a coalition of amici curiae (friends of the court) to intervene in a similar matter in South Africa.

The coalition will argue, in the North Gauteng High Court appeal of former Sowetan journalist Cecil Motsepe, that criminal defamation charges are unconstitutional and unjustifiably limit the rights of freedom of expression and the media.

Motsepe was convicted in May 2009 and handed a suspended sentence of 10 months’ imprisonment or R10,000.

The coalition, led by the Freedom of Expression Institute, includes local and international media and human rights groups.                                                               

The case is to be heard on July 25 2014.

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