Lesotho’s Constitutional Court has declared criminal defamation unconstitutional in a matter brought by Lesotho Times owner and publisher Basildon Peta.
Peta had been charged with criminal defamation on 6 July 2016. His application to have Section 104 of the penal code declared unconstitutional was supported by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC).
Peta argued that the offence of criminal defamation violated the right to freedom of expression. He further argued that the use of criminal sanctions was a disproportionate response to protect individuals’ reputations because, among other reasons, a less-restrictive mechanism – civil defamation – was available.
On Tuesday three judges held that criminalising defamation had a chilling effect of journalistic freedom of expression, resulting in self-censorship by journalists and a less-informed public.
The ruling was in keeping with a 2010 resolution from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights calling on member states to repeal criminal libel.
Other African countries where criminal defamation has been ruled unconstitutional since 2010 include Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the Gambia.
Commenting on the matter, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it welcomed the ruling which it described as “a significant step toward safeguarding press freedom in the country”.
“Journalists should never face criminal charges for doing their job and yesterday’s ruling by Lesotho’s Constitutional Court is the latest victory in the fight to abolish criminal defamation throughout the African continent,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal.
“Criminal defamation is too often used to target critical journalists and we welcome Lesotho joining a growing group of countries that have found that criminal defamation is incompatible with constitutional guarantees for a free press.”