On Friday 31 May 2013 the spokesman for the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, announced that the President had “elected to withdraw” his legal claims against “various Media Groups“. It was reported that the President felt that “measured as against the broader nation interest and challenges which the country is faced with, his personal sentiments, however aggrieved he may feel, must give way“. This bland statement conceals one of the most spectacular of all libel climb-downs by a politician.
President Zuma had, between 2006 and 2010, issued a total of 14 libel claims, seeking a total of 60 million rand (£3.9 million). Only one of the 14 was settled in his favour, notes Die Burger – Media24 paid R50 000 to Zuma for the publication of a reader’s letter in Rapport. The other 13 have, at various times, been withdrawn with, it appears, the last 9 being abandoned on 31 May 2013.
The largest claim was 7 million rand against 94.7 Highveld Stereo DJ Darren Simpson, for a parody song entitled, My Name is Zuma, which was played multiple times on the station. A 5 million rand claim was made for an article by William Mervyn Gumede in the Sunday Independent, in which he commented on Zuma’s rape trial, saying that African culture was being invoked to justify rape or to silence rape victims. A 1 million rand claim for dignity was made against The Star for an article about the ANC National Working Committee’s decision to forbid Zuma from engaging in political activity until the conclusion of his rape trial.
The claims included three cases of defamation against cartoonist Zapiro. There were two claims for cartoons published in The Star. The first for a cartoon depicting Zuma as having his fingers crossed when taking the stand to testify in his rape trial, another in which Zapiro probed Zuma’s alleged moral degeneration in a “handbook”.
The third, and most famous claim against Zapiro, was one for 5 million rand for a cartoon published in the Sunday Times depicting him preparing to rape Lady Justice, who is being pinned down by Julius Malema, Gwede Mantashe and Zwelinzima Vavi (left). This claim was dropped in October 2012 (see the Inforrm post at the time).
Earlier this year President Zuam dropped three further claims: two against Rapport and one against the Sunday Sun. He was required to pay the costs.
The scale of this litigation led to accusations that President Zuma was seeking to intimidate the media and was bringing claims with no real intention of taking them to trial. On 23 May 2013 he missed a deadline lfor legal documents to be submitted relating to six of his claims against media groups and individuals associated with them.
It appears that the President has now dropped these, and all his remaining claims against the media. Details of the South African media coverage can be found on the invaluable “Legalbrief” website.
The Presidential climbdown was, understandably, welcomed by media commentators in South Africa. Media lawyer Dario Milo, from Webber Wentzel, who managed defences on many of the cases brought by the President said
“I think that the sheer magnitude of the claims by the president sent out a signal that was detrimental in terms of freedom of expression. The decision to withdraw has to be welcomed, because it does mean that Zuma recognises that as head of state, he must be the subject of legitimate criticism.”
The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) has welcomed news of the withdrawal of the defamation lawsuits. Sanef chairperson, Nic Dawes, says the decision to withdraw the claims is a step in the right direction.
“President Zuma’s many defamation suits have been hanging over a number of news organisations for years now and it is a very welcome move that he has decided to withdraw them in the interests of the country,”
He said that certainly Sanef hopes that this will set a precedent for other political leaders in South Africa not to use defamation law as an instrument to try to limit robust political speech and dialogue.
Shapiro said he was not at all surprised that Zuma’s was dropping all the claims. He said he didn’t see any mileage Zuma has managed to make of them.
“I really haven’t seen the media in general caving in to this form of intimidation from a powerful politician. I think it is intimidation and it has not worked. I was really very unconcerned. “I thought it was wildly unlikely he would ever pursue them as it would have unearthed a lot of stuff he would not want to have in the public domain. I don’t believe the spin around nation-building and I don’t know how anyone would buy that argument”.
The large number of unsuccessful legal claims brought by the President have not enhanced his reputation and have, presumably, made a severe dent in his bank balance. He has, perhaps, learned the lesson that the European Court of Human Rights has often sought to teach to politicians: that politicians open themselves to close scrutiny of their every word and deed. The President of a democracy which has a vigorous and critical media must learn to live with criticism.