Media fraternity hails court ruling VP Mnangagwa
Minister Mnangagwa

Minister Mnangagwa

Fidelis Munyoro Chief Court Reporter
THE media industry yesterday welcomed the Constitutional Court ruling stating criminal defamation law as unjustifiable in a democratic society.
The final declaration on striking down the law will be made should Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa make his presentation if he wishes to defend it.

The landmark ruling follows a constitutional application by former Standard Newspaper editor Nevanji Madanhire and reporter Nqaba Mtshazi who were being charged with criminally defaming Green Card Medical Aid Society chairperson Dr Munyaradzi Kereke.

Zimbabwe Union of Journalists president Michael Chideme welcomed the development.

“We now call on Minister Mnangagwa to see reason and not defend the existence of criminal defamation in the statutes of Zimbabwe,” he said. “We hope he will share from the same reasoning platform as exhibited by the Constitutional Court.”

Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe chairman Njabulo Ncube described the ruling as a step in the right direction in promoting and protecting freedom of expression and media freedom.

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

“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.”

Ncube said expressing oneself could not be classified as criminal.

“Surely, unpalatable contents of one’s expression cannot be equated to crimes such as rape, murder, robbery etc which attract jail terms,” he said.

Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo had long castigated criminal defamation as unconstitutional.

In an interview with The Sunday Mail in October last year, Prof Moyo said Government would soon strike off criminal defamation from the country’s statutes to align the law with provisions of the new Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

Prof Moyo said the existence of criminal defamation in the legal statutes had caused the country “more harm than good”.

Section 96 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (Chapter 9:23)(the Criminal Law Code), he said, would be repealed following extensive consultations with stakeholders in the media.

“The issue has been repeatedly raised in the engagement we have had with the media industry and the concerns that have been raised are serious, genuine, important and urgent,” he said.

“Obviously, there’s a need for wider and deeper consultations on this matter within and outside Government.  Even so, I am happy to say without any equivocation and without any fear of being contradicted that based on the views we have heard from our engagement with the media industry, given the progressive nature of the new Bill of Rights in our new Constitution and particularly based on the values and ideals of our heroic liberation struggle whose recognition is now enshrined in our new Constitution, I honestly believe that the time has come to remove criminal defamation from our system of justice in the national interest.

“As a ministry that oversees the media industry which is the most affected by criminal defamation, we are persuaded and therefore convinced that the days of having criminal defamation in our statutes now lie in the past.”

Prof Moyo said the constitutionality of the criminal defamation laws was questionable.

“Indeed, and although we are not the authority with the power to interpret the law, we nevertheless believe that the constitutionality of criminal defamation under our country’s new constitutional dispensation is questionable, especially given the inherent vagueness of the criteria which are supposed to be used to decide whether the defamation was sufficiently serious to justify the invocation of the criminal sanction,” he said.

Prof Moyo added that intimations with the players in the media fraternity have shown that there is strong suspicion that the criminal defamation law has been abused by “some powerful or vested and well-connected political interests in society who have taken advantage of the wide scope of criminal defamation to either advance personal interest or to seek to fix perceived personal enemies under the convenient but false if not corrupt cover of the State”.

He said Government would, however, ensure the legislation of new civil laws which compel the courts to take civil litigation seriously.

And in the wake of the arrest of Daily News reporters for criminal defamation in April this year, Prof Moyo once again tore into criminal defamation saying there  was no legal basis for retaining a law that was against progressive values rooted in the liberation struggle.

“To be honest with you, I hope the reports in question (that journalists had been arrested) are not true because the reported action is not necessary at all and risks entangling the police in personal matters that are best left to the offended individuals to pursue in the courts through their own resources and on their own through civil litigation,” he said.

“As such, we believe we need to align the Criminal Law Code with the Constitution by removing criminal defamation from our statutes. Our ministry recently deployed an Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI), which is fighting criminal defamation among other enemies of our national development and advancement as an empowered society.”

Prof Moyo said there was “something medieval” about sending anyone to jail on the grounds that they had lied.

“While our much-respected police should indeed be left alone to get on with their work without hindrance, it cannot be right that their otherwise excellent work should include investigating whether so-and-so in the media has told a defamatory lie against so-and-so among the rich or influential in high society,” he said.

“It is worse when the matter is elevated to prosecution, as if we are not aware of the case backlog that is crippling our criminal justice system. And let’s face it, there’s something medieval about sending anyone to jail on grounds that they have told a lie. That is why criminal defamation or libel is no longer in the statute books of constitutional democracies such as ours.”

Prof Moyo also told British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Ms Deborah Bronnert in a meeting at his offices in Harare in April that the criminal defamation laws had no place in Zimbabwe.

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