Section 96 of the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, criminalizing the act of defamation is now a dead law in Zimbabwe. The Supreme Court ruled that pressmen who defame people in the course of their duties will no longer be hauled behind bars.
The decision of the Supreme court has been described as a welcome victory by journalists as the criminal defamation law had seen uncountable Zimbabwean journalists behind bars.
Making the rule, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, together with a panel of eight other judges, said that previous criminal laws tied to defamation simply violates press freedom enshrined in the national constitution. He postulated that since 2004, the law has been dead and invalid after its promulgation.
Making reference to rulings made by the supreme Court in favour of Former Standard Newspaper editor Nevanji Madanhire, Cheif Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku maintained that the 2015 judgement still binds in terms of the new constitution. He said,
“It is declared that:
“Having been declared as inconsistent with Section 20(1) of the former Constitution in the judgment of this Honourable Court in Madanhire and Another Versus the Attorney-General CCZ2/15, Section 96 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (Chapter 9:23) was not an existing law as defined in Section 1 of the 6th Schedule to the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
“Accordingly, for the avoidance of doubt, Section 96 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act is void and not part of the said enactment,” the court ruled.
Tabling their application in the course of the fight, pressmen from the Media Institute of Southern Africa argued that criminal defamation is an abridgment of press freedom enshrined in Zimbabwe’s new constitution. Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zimbabwe chapter) filed the case along with four journalists who were arrested on charges of political defamation. The four journalists’ names were given as Sydney Saize, Nqaba Matshazi, Rodger Stringer and Godwin Mangudya.
However, Head of Media Institute of Southern Africa Nhlanhla Ngwenya has described the ruling as a “small victory”. He said,
“It is a small victory in the sense that there are still a lot of laws which can be used to criminalize the profession of journalism.”. He however believes that “there is still a litany of laws that Zimbabwe still needs to fight; but, having said that, we are coming from [leaving] a period where criminal defamation was now the preferred law that members of the ruling elite were now using against journalists. They were wantonly and recklessly using the law where they felt the stories were quite unpalatable.”
Speaking also, the Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney of committee to Protect Journalism (CPJ) opined: “This is an important victory for freedom of expression in Zimbabwe, the government has too often resorted to criminal defamation to muzzle independent journalists.”
United Nation Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization report indicates that Press freedom always has a positive influence on the economy and on governance. It expands participation in political decision-making beyond a small inner circle, holds government accountable, and makes their actions transparent. However, in some African countries, press freedom has been a thorny and sensitive issue, with Zimbabwe not exempted.