Zimbabwe’s top court strikes down criminal defamation

New York, June 13, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes Thursday’s move by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court to strike down criminal defamation, saying it is not compatible with the country’s new constitution. The court ruled that criminal defamation violated freedom of expression and that civil suits would adequately protect individuals alleging defamation, reports said.

The ruling is in response to a challenge brought before the court by two journalists from the privately owned, weekly The Standard following their arrests in 2011 for allegedly defaming Munyaradzi Kereke, a former advisor to the central bank and member of the ruling party ZANU-PF. In November 2011, Nevanji Madanhire, editor of the newspaper, and reporter Nqaba Matshazi were arrested and charged with criminal defamation, among other charges, news reports said. The pair appealed their conviction before a Harare magistrate’s court which referred it to the Constitutional Court, according to news reports.

The government still has an opportunity to contest the court’s decision. Justine Limpitlaw, a southern African media law expert, told CPJ that Minister of Justice Emmerson Mnangagwa can either concede that Section 96 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act is unconstitutional, or he can bring fresh argument as to why criminal defamation should remain on the books.

“If the justice minister is able to show cause as to why the law is NOT unconstitutional, then the court will not strike down the law, so we have to wait and see what happens on the return date,” Limpitlaw told CPJ. The constitutional court directed that a hearing be scheduled for the “earliest available date,” news reports said.

“Zimbabwe’s new constitution enshrines freedom of expression, and this is a heartening decision by the country’s highest court to align the laws of the land with the constitution,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. “We urge the justice minister not to oppose the judgment when the court meets to consider the issue.”

Despite the provisions of the constitution that was passed in 2013 that guarantee media freedom and civil liberties, several repressive laws exist in Zimbabwe that are used to limit freedom of the media. These include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, and the Interception of Communications Act. Radio, the principal means of communication for Zimbabweans, most of whom live in rural areas, remains under tight government control, with no licenses granted for community stations.