Law used to stifle criticism, expert says

2012-10-19 20:13
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Johannesburg - Those in power should not readily turn to defamation or dignity law to stifle criticism of their official conduct, media expert Dario Milo said on Friday.

"The best example of a person wielding this power who is fond of using defamation and dignity laws is our very own President Jacob Zuma," Milo said at Wits university in Johannesburg.

"Between 2006 and 2010, the president instituted court action in 15 cases, suing eight newspapers, a radio station, two cartoonists, a columnist, op-ed writers, and journalists."

That was nearly four lawsuits a year, he said.

"The majority of [Zuma's] claims, which total over R50m, are not about news stories that the president regards as inaccurate, but rather concern criticism of his conduct."

Milo was speaking at a SA Media Freedom Day event, hosted by the SA National Editors Forum, the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, and the university.

Media Freedom Day commemorates 19 October 1977, which was known as "Black Wednesday", when under the apartheid government three newspapers were banned and journalists jailed.

Milo said despite the fact that the courts had frequently been called upon to protect the media and had done so there was still a threat to media freedom.

There were two threats in particular.

"Firstly, the use by the executive of apartheid-era legislation to draw a veil of secrecy on matters of public interest," Milo said.

"Secondly, the use of criminal laws to chill freedom of expression, perhaps best exemplified in the draft legislation officially called the protection of state information bill."

This was all despite Zuma saying in his inauguration address in 2009 that "we must defend the freedom of the media".

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