What the press debate on criminal defamation leaves out

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

IN terms of the real lived and living history of Africans, the current press debate on criminal defamation law remains deficient in the following respects:
l It assumes, first, that African concerns about the evils of criminal defamation are the same as Western white liberal concerns. This assumption is wrong because slavery, apartheid and colonialism were all based upon the collective criminal defamation, demonisation and dehumanisation of Africans as a race, a group, a culture and a civilisation.

l Second, the press debate assumes that criminal defamation is about journalists, journalism and the Press and media. These are cogs and links in the nexus or chain of insults, contempt, libel, scandalisation and terror. So, the defensiveness of journalists and activists is based on the narcissistic attitude and assumption that they are the human rights defenders and watchdogs of free expression. Yet the criminal debasement of Africans was well established several centuries before radio, television and all the platforms who believe they are the intended targets of criminal defamation law.

l Third, the debate relies mainly on quotations of Article 19 of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights (UDHR) which was proclaimed in 1948 at the Los Angeles conference at which Africa was represented by Jan Smuts of Apartheid South Africa.

l The neoliberal debate also poses a false dichotomy between liberal reform as progressive, modern and up-to-date, on one hand, and historical realism and African relational philosophy which are misconstrued as traditional, conventional, reactionary and out of touch with the contemporary world of digital communication. This is false. Liberalism and neo-liberalism are today part of the waning white Western hegemony.
Just as Euro-American liberalism constitutes the crumbling establishment clinging to its racist myth of democracy, so also does Roman Dutch Law and the liberalism in our judiciary and law society constitute a crumbling neo-colonial establishment out of touch with what is happening around us.
Any court which will spend two years scrutinising one article or speech in order to reach a judgment about what it communicated cannot be in touch with ‘duties to the community’ to which Article 29 of the UDHR gave a passing mention.
For instance, in December 2004 ZW News and other internet platforms published a terror document called, “Is Genocide Imminent in Zimbabwe?” Contributors to that horror document included the Zimbabwe NGO Forum and Genocide Watch.
The authors proceeded to answer their own question, showing the whole world how genocide worse than what happened in Rwanda in 1994 was indeed unfolding in Zimbabwe.
This document was the climax of millions of features and bulletins telling lies about Zimbabwe and it was the cumulative effect of those lies which created the opening for a false genocide story.
Now, which individual was supposed to go to civil court against such a massive and collective smear job?
The 2002 terror document was circulated all over Europe and America.
I met a Swedish writer and supporter of Zimbabwe then who had seen it in Scandinavian countries, but was surprised upon getting to Zimbabwe at how people were resisting the abuses and provocations aimed at unleashing conflict.
The struggle against defamation and demonisation is not about individual complainants taking one or two offenders to a civil court and getting paid for damages. Rather it is about a global chain-reaction (nexus) which is triggered when the leading power in the imperial coalition of the willing gives its signal of approval to treat the nation as enemy or as ‘a threat to American interests’ or ‘Western interests’.
When the US gave its signal that President Vladmir Putin of Russia should be defamed, someone downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine so that Putin could be blamed and defamed.
Next, a supposed ‘opponent of Putin’ (Boris Nemtsov) had to be gunned down as close to the Kremlin as possible so that Putin could be further defamed and blamed and the population provoked into hysteria.
Not only did innocent air passengers have to die, but the entire Russian nation had to be blamed and defamed for electing and re-electing Putin and keeping him in power. The need of powerful forces to defame their enemies always opens floodgates of hatred and vilification.
It follows therefore that the neo-liberal sponsorship of a campaign to direct and restrict all defamation cases to civil courts is meant to place the cover of civility over a historical practice which has (since the days of slavery, colonialism and apartheid) facilitated the massive commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The growth and proliferation of digital communication has made the nexus of terror and defamation more visible for those who are educated to read the world. Defamation and demonisation are not events or incidents.
The events, speeches and articles are only pieces of a string, a strand, a spiral tied to many other strings which can be moved into orchestration at the trigger of a signal by those who own the long chain.

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