Efforts to create more space for free expression in Africa have been strengthened by the Kenyan Judiciary. In the case of Jacqueline Okuta & Anor vs. AG & Others, the High Court of Kenya on 6 of February 2017 annulled section 194 of the Penal Code that provides for the offence of criminal defamation. This decision is significant in safeguarding the fundamental rights of Kenyans, particularly in light of the forthcoming general elections. It curtails the misuse of criminal law provisions by political figures to curtail speech they consider unfavorable. Journalists especially have been victims of criminal defamation sanctions for exposing corruption and unlawful activities of public officials.
“The harmful and undesirable consequences of criminalizing defamation, viz. the chilling possibilities of arrest, detention and two years’ imprisonment, are manifestly excessive in their effect and unjustifiable in a modern democratic society,” Judge Mativo of the High Court of Kenya pronounced in his judgment.
The Judge noted that upon promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010, it was expected that certain provisions in Kenya’s existing laws were to be amended to align them to the letter and spirit of the Constitution. However, seven years later, this expectation had not been met. Relying on regional and international standards on freedom of expression, the Court concluded that criminal defamation is unconstitutional, reasoning that “the chilling effect of criminalizing defamation is exacerbated by the maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment imposable for any contravention which is clearly excessive and patently disproportionate for the purpose of suppressing objectionable or opprobrious statements. The Court further held that imprisonment as a sanction was not “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society” and that the availability of civil remedies afforded sufficient redress for injury to one’s reputation.
Criminal defamation continues to prominently feature in Penal Codes of African countries especially in East Africa. The High Court of Kenya is the first court in the region to declare that criminal defamation violates the right to freedom of expression.
The case in Kenya arose from the indictment of two petitioners, Jacqueline Okuta and Jackson Njeru, who were each charged with criminal defamation for allegedly publishing defamatory statements on their Facebook account “Buyer beware-Kenya.” The case complaint was based on a post in which the complainants were pictured and named as being wanted for illegal possession and handling of property, and misuse of a telecommunication device. The petitioners then sought to challenge section 194 of the Penal Code before the Constitutional and Human Rights division of the High Court, arguing that the provision was unconstitutional and violated the right to freedom of expression.
A key question is what impact the decision from Kenya’s High Court will have in East Africa, and possibly in the wider African region. The judgment follows and references the landmark decision of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights in the case of Lohé Issa Konaté v. Burkina Faso, but goes further than that Court’s finding that criminal defamation laws should only be used as a last resort when there is a serious threat to the enjoyment of other human rights in exceptional circumstances such as hate speech and incitement. It does so by finding that “any continued enforcement of criminal defamation laws by the government would be a violation of the fundamental and constitutionally guaranteed right to the freedom of expression.”
This corresponds with the minority dissenting opinion in the African Court case, in which 4 of the 10-judge bench found that the “’State’s duty to enforce collective security, morality and common interest’ cannot justify the criminalization of expression of speech by way of criminal defamation laws of any kind, whether punishable by incarceration or not. Access to civil action, civil sanctions together with specifically defined crimes for safeguarding national security, public peace and the common interest should be sufficient.”
The Kenyan case highlights the potential of strategic litigation as an effective tool in bringing about social change where lobbying efforts have failed. It reinforces the efforts of other national courts in Africa like Zimbabwe that have decriminalized defamation twice, once under its previous and once under its current constitution. Other countries in the region, such as Ghana, abolished criminal defamation laws through law reform. This is in line with the continental campaign to decriminalize defamation by the African Union Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Efforts to do the same in East Africa have so far been without result, especially where countries like Uganda previously upheld the constitutionality of criminal defamation laws on grounds that they are “relevant” in protecting reputation.
A challenge to Uganda’s criminal defamation laws is currently pending before the East African Court of Justice. The case, brought on behalf of the now-deceased Ugandan journalist Ronald Ssembuusi, argues that his conviction to a prison sentence of one year was in violation of Uganda’s obligations under the East African Community Treaty. The matter has garnered much interest from the international community, with not only the African Union and United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression having requested to make amicus submissions in the case, but also a coalition of 20 African and international NGOs. It will be interesting to see what impact the Kenyan judgment might have on the case. If the East African Court rules in favor of Ssembuusi, the judgment will positively impact all East African Community countries, which include Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda Burundi and South Sudan.
Nani Jansen Reventlow is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center and an Associate Tenant at Doughty Street Chambers. She serves as an Advisor to the Cyberlaw Clinic and was lead counsel on the Konaté case. Catherine Anite is a human rights lawyer from Uganda and part of the legal team litigating the Ssembuusi case.