Event Reports

Rhodes public lecture

by Brigitte Read

Defending our freedom of expression starts with knowledge of media law

The author of the KAS Media Law Handbook series, Justine Limpitlaw, gave a public lecture this week at Rhodes University in Grahamstown on key media law trends on the sub-continent. On the initiative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and by invitation of the university, the communications law expert visited the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, one of the leading institutes for journalism training, to talk about the state of media law in Sub-Saharan Africa and the specific threats to freedom of expression facing the region.

Limpitlaw spoke about the continued use of colonial-era media laws to silence expression, particularly criminal defamation, sedition, insult and false news laws.

“Although many countries in Africa have constitutions that protect freedom of expression, very few changes have actually been effected to media legislation to ensure laws accord with the constitutional right,” Limpitlaw said. On the contrary, media laws from the colonial era are pervasive with dire consequences for African journalists, she said, citing examples like the criminal defamation case against an editor in Burkina Faso, the imprisonment of the Zone 9 bloggers in Ethiopia and the blocking of websites and charges of sedition and false news in Zambia.

Limpitlaw noted the massive growth of online activism and social media-based resistance with governments all over Africa experiencing the wrath of the ordinary people on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. She said that governments have generally responded poorly with crackdowns and social media blackouts – Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana and Zambia have all reacted in this way. She warned that although South Africa has not sought to shut down sites, internet regulation is already here and worse is to come, including registration and regulation for online content distributors.

The lawyer spoke about the critical importance of public broadcasting in Africa noting that only very few countries have public as opposed to state broadcasters. Referring to South Africa’s recent experience of key court cases involving the SABC and what it means as an indicator of the health of our democracy, Limpitlaw noted that South Africa “is a critical bell-weather for public broadcasting on the continent” and the rest of the sub-continent was watching the current SABC crisis with interest.

The public lecture was well attended by over a hundred journalism students and members of the public. The following day Limpitlaw hosted a smaller seminar with school lecturers and senior students which was equally successful. You can listen to her seminar on soundcloud. Rhodes Journalism lecturer Simon Pamphilon said Limpitlaw’s insights really brought home the seriousness of the situation that we are facing. “It has inspired us as a school of journalism to be more proactive in contesting attempts to erode freedom of expression,” he said.

KAS Media Africa has commissioned Limpitlaw to research and write a Media Law Handbook for Eastern Africa which will be published by November this year. The Media Law Handbook for Southern Africa is available online here.

Contact Person

Christoph Plate

Christoph Plate bild

Director Media Programme Subsahara Africa

christoph.plate@kas.de +27 11 214 29 00 +27 11 214 2913