South African Editors Forum urges President Zuma to withdraw complaint

09:42, December 16, 2010      

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A cartoon published by the South African Sunday Times newspaper two years ago has caused a stir in the South African journalism profession, following a defamation suit filed by President Zuma against the cartoonist.

The defamation action instituted, which is claiming 5 million rands (733,915 U. S. dollars) in damages was filed against the Sunday Times newspaper, its editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya, and cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) over a cartoon that was published in the Sunday Times in 2008.

In a statement on Wednesday, South African National Editors Forum ( SANEF) said it believed that it is surprising that the president waited more than two years before instituting his complaint on the grounds that in one instance he had been humiliated and degraded by the cartoon and in another instance that his reputation had been damaged.

This latest action against the media is the 14th defamation suit Zuma has filed in the last four years, a legal expert Willem de Klerk told Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday.

The cartoon in question depicted President Zuma preparing to rape a blind-folded Lady Justice.

It is believed the commentary was meant to depict the manipulation of the South African justice system, at the time, Zuma was not president of South Africa, but was the president of the country's ruling party, the ANC.

De Klerk said the delayed legal action by the president was "mind-boggling."

"It is puzzling that he waited two years to institute legal action, which begs the question, why did he take so long?" he said in a telephonic interview.

He said it was abnormal for a politician any where in the world, to be engaged in such relentless action against the media as Zuma has.

"In my calculations, this is the 14th defamation case that the president has instituted in the past four years," said de Klerk.

He said the media was being sued at least once every four months by the president.

"Surely this must be an international record by a politician or by any sitting president, which I find very unusual," he said.

Spokesman for the Freedom of Expression Institute, Ayesha Kajee, said Tuesday her organization will defend the right of cartoonist and political commentators to use satire as a tool in their commentary on political figures.

"Especially when the issue under consideration has a great deal of public relevance," she said.

Asked if he was shaken by the president's latest legal move against him, Zapiro said "not at all."

"Surprised yes, the reason is that I am puzzled by what Zuma and his legal team think they can accomplish by pursuing this (claim for damages)," he said in a telephonic interview.He said the president's actions in this instance were scare tactics.

"I have seen these law suites as a means to intimidation by a powerful politician."

Zapiro said he believed there was a link between this lawsuit and the proposed media tribunal of the ruling African National Congress.

SANEF noted that this was not the first time the cartoon had been brought into question and noted that the content of the cartoon had been debated by the Human Rights Commission which had exonerated the paper and Zapiro, stating that the issues raised by the cartoon were in the public domain.

"In light of the above SANEF is deeply concerned at the chilling effect inordinately large claims for damages on ground of defamation can have on the publication of cartoons which employ satire to comment on issues of public interest involving public personalities such as politicians and, in particular, government leaders," said Raymond Louw, SANEF Media Freedom deputy chairman, in a statement.

Louw said SANEF had noted that President Zuma had brought a number of earlier defamation actions against newspapers and the cartoonist which appear not to have been taken further but which continue to have an intimidatory effect on publication.

"The latest action, too, especially as a result of the lengthy time taken to lodge it against the newspaper, will be seen as having an intimidatory effect on the Sunday Times and the media as a whole," he added.

In this regard, SANEF is conscious of the high degree of political tension that is likely to arise in the coming months leading up to the important local South African government elections scheduled to take place in 2011.

"In such an environment it will readily be seen that claims for defamation may be launched which will have a further chilling effect on newspapers and the media in commenting on affairs of the day and the conduct of politicians," said Louw.

Such claims, he said, will have the effect of restricting freedom of expression and commentary on matters of public interest in South Africa.

"In view of the time lapse and the Human Rights Commission's decision, SANEF calls on President Zuma to withdraw the claim," he said.

Source: Xinhua

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