Zimbabwe axes defamation law - CNBC Africa

Zimbabwe axes defamation law

Southern Africa

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The sentence for defamation in Zimabwe used to be up to 20 years in prison. PHOTO: North American Law Centre

“For us as journalists, the threat of a criminal prosecution hanging over your head for the things that we say, it’s a really serious one, especially in Zimbabwe,” Simon Allison, senior reporter at the Daily Maverick, told CNBC Africa.

“The sentence for defamation used to be up to 20 years in prison. That’s a really long time for insulting someone, or bringing someone’s reputation into disrepute.”

Zimbabwe’s constitutional court scrapped the law on Tuesday after two journalists appealed to the constitutional court against charges of defamation.

They had been charged for naming two state security agents who had been said to have been involved in the kidnapping of human rights activists in 2008.

While the law no longer exists, Allison added that one can nevertheless be sued for defamation in a civil case, and with that brings financial damages.

(READ MORE: Challenging the law can become costly)

“The reason that courts generally, in constitutions, have tended to not like this idea of criminal defamation is because it has quite a chilling effect on journalism. Journalism is quite a risky business and it does involve saying some hard things and laying out hard truths sometimes,” Allison explained.

“Sometimes we get it wrong, but more often than not we get it right. For that reason, it’s not really an appropriate punishment to be handled with a stiff criminal sentence.”

There are however instances where a certain level of regulation should be imposed. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, radio stations led the incitement of violence against the country’s Tutsi population, and is prime example, according to Allison, of media going way beyond the line.

“There do need to be restrictions on media, but those need to be within a constitutional framework, and they need to be reasonable and appropriate. It’s a fine balancing act because ultimately, you can’t have the government, who generally were the people that journalists need to be keeping in check, you can’t have them also have the power to put journalists behind bars. It really is a tricky one,” Allison added.