The SA National Editors' Forum (Sanef) condemns the call by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande for special "insult law protection" for President Jacob Zuma. In making the call Nzimande said the President needed such protection because he was being subjected to disrespect and insults. He warned, ominously, that the "people" could retaliate and "undo the 1994 deal" should the insults continue.
Sanef is startled by these very revealing remarks which show that Nzimande has ignored the strong opposition by journalists, lawyers and freedom of expression activists to such a law because of the censorship it promotes and the dangers it holds out for journalists. In many countries in Africa journalists are frequently jailed under this law after having criticised the head of state or other high ranking politicians or officials. The law is used as a pretext to suppress opposition voices in the media and civil society.
Nzimande, who is general secretary of the SA Communist Party, was responding to the call by the SACP in KwaZulu-Natal for the enactment of a law to protect the office of the President after what it called a "barrage of insults directed at President Jacob Zuma". KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo - who is also chairman of the eThekwini region- echoed this call at the weekend, telling delegates at an ANC conference that "we cannot allow a sitting president to be insulted".
He has ignored the Declaration of Table Mountain unveiled in 2007 by the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors' Forum in the presence of then President Thabo Mbeki at its annual congress in Cape Town which calls for the scrapping of insult and criminal defamation laws throughout Africa. Also ignored are similar campaigns against these laws launched by the World Press Freedom Committee and the Media Institute of South Africa.
Even worse he has ignored the October 12 launching of a continent-wide campaign against insult law and the law of criminal defamation by the African Union's Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in Africa, Pansy Tlakula, who is also the chairperson of SA's Independent Electoral Commission. The law is widely used in Africa and has resulted in many journalists spending lengthy periods in jail and the closure of media outlets.
Instead of calling for the law Nzimande should recognise that the law would offend against SA's Constitution and join the protest movements against it.
Sanef is gratified to note that senior structures of the ANC have not backed Nzimande. We are confident that the party will be guided by a commitment to constitutional principles and will thus not entertain Nzimande's call.