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Freedom of expression

Jessie WingardOctober 29, 2012

SA President Jacob Zuma says freedom of expression needs to be balanced so it ensures privacy and the right to dignity. He told reporters Monday a proposed Media Appeals Tribunal would be established to achieve that.

South African President Jacob Zuma (Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/GettyImages)
Jacob ZumaImage: AFP/Getty Images

President Jacob Zuma's proposal to create a Media Appeals Tribunal to hear cases concerning freedom of expression came just one day after the presidential office announced Zuma would be abandoning a legal bid to see a cartoonist tried for defamation.

"After careful consideration and consultation with his legal team, President Zuma has taken a decision to withdraw his claim against the respondents, and pay a contribution to their costs," the presidential office said in a statement.

"The president...would like to avoid setting a legal precedent that may have the effect of limiting the public exercise of free speech, with the unforeseen consequences this may have on our media, public commentators and citizens," they added.

'Go for it, boss!'

The allegedly defamatory cartoon, published in 2008, depicted Zuma about to rape a blindfolded "Lady Justice" figure.

Published in the Sunday Times newspaper, the satirical cartoon by Jonathan Shapiro, better known by his pen-name, Zapiro, showed Zuma undoing his pants as political supporters held the woman to the floor and urged, "Go for it, boss!"

The "hurtful and defamatory" caricature appeared when Zuma was not yet president of South Africa. At the time of its publication he was fighting charges of bribery which later were withdrawn.

Zapiro's depiction was in reference to a 2006 case during which Zuma was found not guilty of raping an HIV-positive family friend.

"Moreover, in depicting President Zuma as a would-be rapist, the cartoon sought to play to discredited and legally disproved accusations made against him in 2006," the presidential office said in their statement.

Zapiro cartoon. For more Zapiro cartoons visit www.zapiro.com
One of Zapiro's later pieces. © 2011-2012 ZapiroImage: DW

International criticism

Zuma has been criticized internationally for pushing legislation that has been seen as an attempt to muzzle the country's media.

Speaking to DW Shapiro, the man behind the cartoon's legal counsel Dario Milo said on Monday, they were confident their side would have won if the civil case had gone before the court.

"It's a hammer blow in favour of freedom of expression and it also vindicates what I was saying in the cartoon, which is that Jacob Zuma was abusing the justice system in order to get corruption charges dropped against him so that he could become president," the cartoonist said in an interview with DW.

Milo, representing the respondents told DW, "this is a wonderful victory for the newspaper, and Zapiro, the cartoonist. It bodes well for the media and freedom of expression. It will make people think twice about suing for such extravagant amounts of money."

This, Milo added, is an important signal that the president respects the right of the media to be critical of his conduct.

The timing of proceedings would have been politically damaging to President Zuma's campaign to be re- elected as head of the African National Congress (ANC) at the end of this year.

Compensation claim

Zuma first initiated legal proceedings four years ago against Avusa media, owners of the Sunday Times newspaper, the former editor and Zapiro. He sought five million rand (445,000 euro, $580,000) for damage to his reputation as a result of the cartoon being published.

Last week, Zuma reduced his compensation claim to 100,000 rand and demanded an apology from the artist, the newspaper's owner and its former editor.

In April this year, a painting showing Zuma with his genitals exposed sparked outrage across the country. Zuma initiated court proceedings in that instance, but later dropped the case against the painting's artist.