By Nomalanga Moyo
SW Radio Africa
23 July 2014
The Constitutional Court has nullified the country’s criminal defamation law in a move hailed as a major step towards press freedom in Zimbabwe.
In his ruling Tuesday, ConCourt Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba said the law interfered with the right to freedom of expression and declared it void. Malaba also ordered the State to pay the court costs.
The ruling concludes a lengthy fight by two journalists from the privately-run Zimbabwe Independent newspaper who were facing criminal defamation charges.
The charges against editor-in-chief Vincent Kahiya and ex-news editor Constantine Chimakuru stemmed from a story the newspaper carried in 2009 which named state security agents, said to have abducted political and rights activists in 2008.
The State felt the story undermined public confidence in law enforcement agents and laid criminal defamation charges against Chimakure and Kahiya, under Section 31 the Criminal Law (Reform & Codification) Act.
However, the two journalists appealed the constitutionality of the defamation laws at the ConCourt, arguing that the laws curtailed media freedom.
In October the ConCourt agreed with the two and declared the country’s defamation law unconstitutional as it infringes on freedom of expression.
The State was then given time to defend the retention of the defamation provisions through Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, but he chose not to.
Linda Cooke who was part of the legal team representing Chimakure and Kahiya welcomed the ConCourt decision to scrap the defamation law.
“We haven’t studied the judgment in detail but we are happy with it, as will be our clients and all human rights activists in Zimbabwe,” Cooke said on Wednesday.
The ruling ZANU PF government has over the years used the country’s stringent criminal and media laws to silence voices critical of the regime’s misrule and rights abuses.
Press freedom lobby group Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zim) welcomed the ruling but called for the urgent alignment of the country’s laws to the new constitution.
In an interview with SW Radio Africa on Wednesday, MISA director Nhlanhla Ngwenya said the ruling sets a legal precedence to challenge those laws that impinge on media freedom.
“What we in the media are celebrating is the vindication of our position calling for the repeal of the insult laws, criminal libel and defamation and publication of falsehoods.
“So Tuesday’s ruling vindicated that long-held position. But what worries us is that the ConCourt judgment was done under the old constitutional dispensation. We are still to have an interpretation of these statutes juxtaposed with the new constitution,” Ngwenya said.
Ngwenya said this had the potential to cause confusion because law enforcement agents can still use the existing laws to impinge on the right to freedom of expression.
Ngwenya said it remains to be seen whether the State will respect the ruling, adding that from what has happened in the past, they could only hope so.
“We have seen the State barring gatherings or marches by the public with some being arrested under old laws. So for us at MISA it remains a concern that the laws are not aligned to the constitution to remove the current ambiguity in interpreting the law,” he added.