South African President Says Political Cartoon Defamed Him

December 14, 2010 - 7:05 AM

Johannesburg (AP) - South Africa's president has filed a $700,000 defamation suit over a cartoon depicting him with his pants undone, preparing to rape a blindfolded, female figure symbolizing justice, a lawyer said Tuesday.

Eric van der Berg, a lawyer for the Sunday Times, said notice from the president's lawyers had arrived at the paper's Johannesburg offices Monday.

The cartoon caused a storm when the Times published it in 2008, two years after Jacob Zuma had been acquitted of rape charges. But van der Berg said Zuma had not followed up on threats to sue until now.

Zuma is claiming 4 million rand (about $570,000) for humiliation and degradation and 1 million rand (about $140,000) for damage to his reputation. His spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, refused to comment Tuesday.

Jonathan Shapiro, who signs his work Zapiro and is among the country's best known political cartoonists, said he stood behind his cartoon and the view he was expressing.

"I will not allow the president to intimidate me," Shapiro told the daily Times, sister paper to the Sunday Times.

The cartoon also showed Zuma's political allies encouraging him as they held down a writhing, screaming figure with a sash identifying her as the "justice system."

It appeared in the newspaper as Zuma's political party led a protest campaign to have corruption charges dropped against him. Zuma at the time was preparing to lead his African National Congress party in general elections. Prosecutors dropped the charges on the eve of the vote, and Zuma took office in 2009.

Buti Manamela, then a leader of the Young Communist League, filed a formal complaint about the cartoon before South Africa's Human Rights Commission in 2008. The South African Communist Party leader was among the ANC allies depicted in the cartoon.

The commission concluded that the cartoon, while "probably offensive and distasteful," did not violate Zuma's constitutional right to dignity or constitute hate speech.

"The cartoon is a political expression, published in the public interest, and as such, deserves heightened protection," the commission ruled. "It has, in fact, stimulated valuable political debate."

Relations between the ANC and the media have been strained for years. The ANC has chafed at reporting on government corruption, and accuses many journalists of being biased against the party. Reporters and rights watchdogs accuse the party of backsliding on freedoms that were won with the defeat of apartheid and are now enshrined in one of the world's most liberal constitutions.

The ANC has proposed a secrets law that could jail reporters for publishing classified information, and the party is also contemplating creating a media tribunal. The tribunal would be controlled by politicians and would have undefined powers to punish journalists for infractions that also are unclear. Both campaigns have stalled amid wide protest, but ANC leaders have not abandoned them.