14 April 2014

Africa: Expert Says Colonial-Era Defamation Laws Persist in Africa

Photo: Gwen Lister
Mostefa Souag of Al Jazeera, right, and IPI's Alison Bethel McKenzie, centre, join a call on Egypt to free Al Jazeera staff on trial in Cairo.

Cape Town — A South African legal expert is urging journalists to get more involved in abolishing criminal defamation laws, saying she is “horrified” how little awareness there is about colonial-era regulations that affect reporters and editors.

Justine Limpitlaw, a communications law consultant in Johannesburg, told IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi in an interview that regional efforts are needed to overhaul criminal defamation and insult laws.

Speaking on the sidelines of the IPI World Congress in Cape Town, Limpitlaw said the biggest obstacle to change is that governments “are so used to having these laws in place. These laws have been in place for longer than many people in governments have been born.”

“I was horrified by how few people knew the laws, never mind the journalists, the lawyers didn't know about these laws very often in those countries,” said Limpitlaw, who has launched a campaign to decriminalise defamation across Africa.

The author of the Media Law Handbook for Southern Africa, Limpitlaw has worked with many of South Africa's leading media companies as well as with freedom of expression groups.

She has given lectures on communications law at universities in South Africa, United States and United Kingdom.

The handbook was published in 2012 by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Regional Media Programme and examines media laws in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia. It presents universally agreed norms for democratic media regulation.

The book is an important tool in the recently launched Decriminalisation of Expression Campaign, which aims at abolishing criminal defamation, insult, false news and sedition laws in Africa. The campaign is spearheaded by the African Union's special rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Pansy Tlakula, along with organisations across the continent.

Click here to listen to the entire interview.

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