Repeal criminal defamation laws

Repeal criminal defamation laws

WE note with concern last Sunday’s arrest, detention and alleged harassment of firebrand Alliance of Democrats (AD) youth league leader Thuso Litjobo by unidentified men.
The arrest came after he had a public fall-out with a senior police officer who he accuses of blocking a protest march organised by the opposition. While Litjobo was not charged with violating any of Lesotho’s laws, earlier reports had suggested he faced criminal defamation charges over a statement he made on one of the local radio stations.

That to us is quite worrying. Litjobo would have become the latest victim in a long line of individuals to fall foul of criminal defamation charges.
It is precisely this matter which we think needs our immediate attention as a nation. But before we delve into that subject, we need to state unequivocally that there is already a perception that Litjobo is being persecuted and hounded by his political opponents.This will do nothing to spruce up the coalition government’s image which has gone through a lot of battering over the past 24 months.It would therefore be in the coalition government’s interests that disputes of this nature are dealt with in a calm, calculated manner and not through heavy-handed tactics. Any reckless and overzealousness on the part of law enforcement agents would create a public relations disaster for the government.
We would also want to think that Litjobo poses no real threat to Lesotho’s national security. He is only a youth leader of a fledgling political party.
While we claim to be no legal fundis we are fully aware that progressive countries are striking criminal defamation laws from their statute books, including the benighted regime in Zimbabwe.

The reason is simple.  The law is not only archaic but is so broad as to criminalise ordinary politics. An international advocacy organisation that promotes freedom of expression, Article 19, says “criminal defamation is a disproportionate punishment and has a harsh effect on freedom of expression”. Individuals who are convicted for criminal defamation might even face jail sentences or hefty fines. The net result is that the law muzzles free speech. Journalists will tend to practice self-censorship as they would not be too sure of the implications of what they write. Under such an environment, the nation will be the biggest loser.

We can kiss good-bye to any investigative journalism under such circumstances. It is precisely for these reasons that democratic governments across the world are repealing criminal defamation laws recognising they are not only archaic but that they have no place in a democratic society. Public figures by virtue of being public figures must learn to accept harsh criticism particularly from the media.  They should not seek to resort to criminal defamation laws to silence legitimate criticism. Where reputations have been soiled, we believe there are other alternatives in our statute books to cover for such eventualities. It would also be the course of wisdom for the authorities in the government and law enforcement agencies not to initiate and prosecute alleged offenders in criminal defamation cases. They should not be the complainants and prosecutors in the same court.

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