In a terse, 37-page judgment delivered last week, the Constitutional Court of Lesotho struck down criminal defamation as unconstitutional. The judgment repays some scrutiny, because many of the arguments raised – and addressed – by the Court are similar to the arguments that were made in the unsuccessful constitutional challenge to criminal defamation in India two years ago. Further, the Lesotho Constitutional Court’s application of the global proportionality standard to invalidate criminal defamation shows a potential path forward here, where proportionality has come to the fore after the judgment in Puttaswamy.
The constitutional challenge in Lesotho arose out of criminal proceedings against a satirical article that mocked the Commander of the Lesotho Defence Forces. The author of the article was accordingly prosecuted. Section 104 of the Lesotho Penal Code defined criminal defamation in terms somewhat similar to the IPC. The relevant defences – also akin to the IPC – included proving that the material was true and for public benefit, or establishing legal privilege.
Section 14 of the Constitution of Lesotho guaranteed the right to freedom of speech and expression. The section also authorised restrictions upon the freedom of speech, including, inter alia, “for the purpose of protecting the reputations, rights and freedoms of other persons (interestingly, the Section also provided for a right of reply).
The Court began its analysis by noting the intrinsic and instrumental benefits of the freedom of expression in a democracy (paragraph 8). These are well-worn by now, and do not need repetition. In particular, the Court focused on the importance of satire in a democracy, and the need for any guarantee of the freedom of speech to protect satire (paragraph 9) – especially where “public figures” such as the (former) Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force were concerned, who ought to “display a higher degree of tolerance” (compare this with the Indian Supreme Court’s invented doctrine of “historically respectable personalities). Within this framework, the Court then applied the three-step proportionality standard to decide whether criminal defamation was constitutional. This standard – in the form that the Court endorsed – requires, first, that a restriction upon rights be imposed only through a law, which has a rational connection with the goal; secondly, that the law impair rights only to the minimal extent necessary to achieve the State interest; and thirdly, that there be an overall balancing between the extent to which the right is infringed, and the importance of the goal (paragraph 16).
Criminal defamation cleared the first hurdle, which was a rational connection with the legitimate State interest of protecting reputation. However, it fell at the second hurdle, that of minimal impairment. The Court found, first, that the law was over-broad and vague, inter alia, because the defence of “public benefit” had not been defined, and that “anything could be characterised as not being for “public benefit” due to the elasticity of this concept” (paragraph 18). In particular, by using this concept as a filter, the Court noted that “the Legislature has granted an unfettered discretion to the Prosecutorial authorities”, which would inevitably cast a chilling effect upon freedom of speech and expression (paragraph 18). The Court also found that through its requirement of “truth”, the Section effectively criminalised satire which, by its nature, “exaggerates and distorts reality” (paragraph 18).
Next, the Court held that criminal defamation also failed on the third prong of proportionality – that of a balance between the goal of protecting reputation, and its curtailment of speech. This included the very real possibility of self-censorship, and the existence of civil remedies (paragraph 19), which helped to achieve the same goal without the stigma, direct targeting, and greater punishments that defined the criminal legal regime. The Court closed with noting that the international trend – from a recent judgment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (paragraph 21) to international legal instruments (paragraphs 22 – 23) – was towards holding that criminal defamation was no longer consistent with the requirements of democratic societies. The Court therefore concluded:
“The means used to achieve the purpose of protecting reputation interests, in some instances, are overbroad and vague in relation to the freedom of expression guarantee in Section 14 of the Constitution. Furthermore, having concluded that criminal defamation laws have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression, and that, civil remedies for reputational encroachment are more suited towards redressing such reputational harm, I have come to the conclusion that the extent of the above-mentioned sections’ encroachment on the freedom of expression is “not reasonable and demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”” (paragraph 24)
Criminal defamation was, accordingly, struck down.
In light of the Lesotho Constitutional Court’s judgment, and before it, in recent times, the judgment of the High Court of Kenya and the African Human Rights Court (both holding criminal defamation to be unconstitutional, in different ways), the Indian Supreme Court’s rambling, near-incoherent, 268-page judgment in Subramanian Swamy v Union of India (2016), which invented new doctrines such as “constitutional fraternity” in order to uphold criminal defamation as constitutional, seems more and more anachronistic. That apart, however, the Lesotho judgment suggests a way forward: in Swamy, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court did not examine the constitutionality of criminal defamation on the three-step proportionality standard. Many of the arguments made before the Lesotho constitutional court – including overbreadth and vagueness, the chilling effect of terms such as “public good”, and the disproportionality of criminal remedies, were dismissed by the Court without a serious examination under the proportionality standard. In Puttaswamy, however, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court definitively incorporated the global proportionality standard into Indian constitutional law. In addition to Swamy’s failure to consider may relevant constitutional arguments (see here), this now makes the case for revisiting that judgment even stronger.
In Puttaswamy, the Court acknowledged – within the short span of five years – that its judgment in Koushal v Naz Foundation had been a mistake. This is to the Court’s credit. It would be equally to its credit to acknowledge that its judgment from two years ago, in Subramanian Swamy, was as grave a mistake – and to join the growing ranks of post-colonial countries that have consigned this anachronistic provision to the dustin of history.