PEN Report on Criminal Defamation Laws in Africa

22 Nov 2017
PEN Report on Criminal Defamation Laws in Africa

A new report by PEN has found that many governments in Africa retain criminal defamation laws that make it a crime to say, write or publish anything that they consider defamatory or insulting. The result is a restriction of freedom of expression, open debate, political criticism and media reporting.

The report Stifling Dissent Impeding Accountability Criminal Defamation Laws in Africa focuses on the continued retention of such laws in Uganda, Zambia, South Africa and Sierra Leone and examines the impact of the repeal of criminal defamation laws in Ghana in 2001.

PEN’s research reveals that the threat of criminal sanctions deters media investigations into, and reporting of, issues considered by governments to be sensitive or embarrassing, such as high-level corruption, official malpractice or law-breaking, thereby facilitating official secrecy and undermining accountability. In many cases, where journalists, editors or publishers have refused to be cowed into self-censorship by these laws, they have been subject to arrest, detention, prosecution and long drawn out trials, and sometimes imprisonment for months or even years, leading to a culture of fear.

The report notes that while there has been some progress towards repeal of criminal defamation laws, the majority of African states continue to retain them. This is in contrast to the clear calls from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on states to repeal such laws on the grounds that they “constitute a serious interference with freedom of expression and impedes on the role of the media as a watchdog.” In 2014 the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in the case of Konaté v Burkina Faso that imprisonment for defamation violates the right to freedom of expression and that criminal defamation laws should only be used in restricted circumstances.

In SA, the report found that despite few charges of defamation brought against journalists, there is some indication that the presence of the law on the statute book has a chilling effect on journalists who are aware of it, with several openly acknowledging that they self-censored and edited out material they considered risky, while recognising that this could result in the publication of distorted information. They attributed their self-censorship partly to the high legal costs of defending themselves and their newspapers against possible defamation charges, possibly leading to their newspaper’s closure.
Raymond Louw, PEN South Africa Vice-President

The report concludes with a series of recommendations including the immediate abolition of criminal sanctions for defamation and the release of all journalists currently imprisoned under these laws simply for exercising their right to freedom expression.

(Image courtesy of PEN International)