At a time when press freedoms are under fire in many African nations, the small southern kingdom of Lesotho took a big step forward this week as the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that criminal defamation – in this case involving a journalist – is unconstitutional.
The case centered on publisher Basildon Peta, owner of the weekly Lesotho Times, and a satire column he wrote in 2016 that poked fun at political power games and the former Lesotho Defence Force commander, Tiali Kamoli. The next week, Peta was accused of intentionally defaming the military chief and faced criminal charges.
The charge against Peta came as a Lesotho Times editor was shot in front of his home and a reporter fled to South Africa for safety amid the country’s volatile instability.
On Monday, Justice M. A. Mokhesi, writing for the court, determined that the criminal defamation charge and Section 104 of the law supporting it was unconstitutional. Two other judges concurred.
Mokhesi wrote that he “concluded that criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression, and that civil remedies for reputational encroachment are more suited to redressing such reputational harm.” The constraints on freedom of expression were not justified in a free society.
The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the ruling as a significant step toward safeguarding press freedom in the country.
“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,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Angela Quintal.
African countries where criminal defamation has been ruled unconstitutional since 2010 include Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Gambia, the CPJ said.