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Sanef shocked at defamation claim by President Zuma against Sunday Times

The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) is shocked at the defamation action instituted by President Jacob Zuma against Avusa, the Sunday Times, its editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya, and cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) over a cartoon that was published in the Sunday Times more than two years ago.

Sanef believes 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.

The amount of the claim is also excessively high—R5-million.

Sanef has 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.

Sanef has also noted that President Zuma has 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.

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 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.

Such claims will have the effect of restricting freedom of expression and commentary on matters of public interest.

In view of the time lapse and the Human Rights Commission’s decision, Sanef calls on President Zuma to withdraw the claim.