JOHANNESBURG – Freedom of expression needs to be balanced to give the right to dignity and privacy to all South Africans, President Jacob Zuma said Monday, after he agreed to withdraw a defamation case against a newspaper cartoonist who depicted him poised to rape Lady Justice.
Zuma said his government's proposed Media Appeals Tribunal is designed to assure those rights in South Africa, where the president's complaints against some in the local press have brought this tension into sharp focus.
A media tribunal would "strengthen, complement and support the current self-regulatory institutions" such as the press council, said Zuma, speaking to the Foreign Correspondents Association Monday.
"The African National Congress fought for media freedom and will continue doing everything in its power to promote freedom of expression and media freedom," Zuma said. "At the same time, we also remind those who are privileged to have access to the media to respect the rights of others."
But media watchdogs disagree with Zuma and say that industry self-regulation is the best approach, not a tribunal that could be manipulated by those in power.
"I think the potential for it to be abused is too high," William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa, a watchdog group, said of the proposed tribunal.
Zuma has taken several media organizations to court for alleged defamation, including Jonathan Shapiro, a cartoonist for the local Sunday Times newspaper, which he accused of defamation in a case that was set to take off this week. The cartoon outraged Zuma's supporters when it was printed in Sept. 2008, with Zuma demanding damages of up to 4 million rand ($460,000) in damages. In the cartoon Zuma unzips his trousers as he stands over Lady Justice, who is pinned to the ground by the president's political allies. One of them tells Zuma, "Go for it, boss!"
Zuma was acquitted of a rape charge in 2007.
Zuma said he agreed to drop that case after the newspaper conceded it had defamed him. The Sunday Times said over the weekend that Zuma's lawyers agreed to withdraw the case without conditions and to pay half of the newspaper's legal costs.
Zuma said he still would like an apology from the newspaper, even though he is not demanding it.
Shapiro, whose professional name is Zapiro, said he had "mixed feelings" about Zuma's withdrawal of the case "because I would have liked to go to court and I believe we would have won hands down," according to the Sunday Times.
Even though millions of South Africans are still mired in poverty, Zuma said the country had "consolidated democracy" and strengthened state institutions since 1994.
Zuma, 70, is expected to seek a second term as the leader of the African National Congress at the ruling party's conference in December. Success at the conference would guarantee Zuma another term as South Africa's president. His leadership has been tested recently by violent strikes in South Africa's mines that damaged the country's reputation as an investment destination. According to Zuma, the strikes, however unfortunate, are sign of a progressing democracy.
"Strikes in a democracy are a common occurrence," he said. "That's a feature of democracy."
More than 40 South Africans were killed in mine violence outside Johannesburg last August, including 34 strikers shot dead by police on Aug. 16 in the worst incident of state violence since the end of apartheid.
"These painful incidents are not what we want to see in a free and fair democratic South Africa, where people are free to express themselves," Zuma said.