Supreme Court strikes down repressive media legislation

New York, May 7, 2003—Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled today that a section of the controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) that criminalizes “publishing falsehoods” is unconstitutional.

Section 80 of AIPPA stipulated that it was an “abuse of journalistic privilege” to publish false information, whether it was intentional or not. Journalists convicted of violating this provision would have faced up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to 100,000 Zimbabwean Dollars (US$120). (At the time of the bill’s passage, the fine totaled US$2,000).

Supreme Court justice Godfrey Chidyausiku found that the AIPPA clause violates Article 20 of the Zimbabwean Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.

The constitutional challenge to the AIPPA section was filed by Geoff Nyarota and Lloyd Mudiwa, former editor-in-chief and former journalist, respectively, at the independent Daily News. The two journalists were charged under the provision after the paper published a story alleging that members of a pro-government militia had beheaded an opposition supporter. The story was later found to be untrue, and the Daily News published a retraction and an apology. Both journalists have fled the country for fear of further harassment.

“While we welcome the Supreme Court’s ruling, such repressive legislation never should have been passed in the first place,” said CPJ acting director Joel Simon. “Zimbabwean authorities repeatedly use the courts to harass independent journalists in reprisal for critical reporting. We hope that this decision signals the beginning of a better era for journalists there.”

During the last year, Zimbabwean authorities have used legislation such as AIPPA and the Public Order and Security Act to prosecute more than a dozen journalists.

Zimbabwean journalists contacted by CPJ said that while they view the Supreme Court decision as a victory for the press, they remain concerned by other repressive sections of AIPPA, including a provision requiring all journalists to register with and receive accreditation from a government-appointed media commission. Independent journalists not registered with the commission have been barred from covering parliamentary proceedings and State House press briefings.

In March, Zimbabwean information minister Jonathan Moyo announced that the government intends to amend AIPPA. Parliament is currently considering a new version of the act, Zimbabwean sources said.