Global Freedom of Expression

Maughan v. Zuma

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    June 7, 2023
  • Outcome
    Motion Granted
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    South Africa, Africa
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law, Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Digital Rights, Press Freedom, SLAPPs
  • Tags
    Online Harassment

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

A Full Court (comprising three judges) of the High Court in South Africa dismissed a private criminal prosecution instituted by the former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, against a senior, female, legal journalist reporting on his criminal trial, as an abuse of process. The journalist had published an article about his trial that included information about Zuma’s medical condition, which had been obtained from the public court documents and which had been relied on by Zuma as a basis for securing a further adjournment of his long-delayed criminal trial for alleged fraud and corruption during his presidency. When Zuma issued criminal summons against the journalist on grounds that she had disclosed his confidential medical information unlawfully, the journalist applied to have the summons set aside as an abuse of court process. Three amici curiae (friends of the court) who support media freedom intervened to assist the Court with relevant submissions inter alia contextualizing the application the journalist had instituted, through reference to international legal instruments, such the UN Human Rights Council, which had recognized attacks on journalists, specifically female journalists, and through highlighting the need for SLAPP suites in the context of criminal proceedings to be dealt with (and disposed of) expeditiously to mitigate the risk posed through their abusive institution.

Embracing these submissions, the Court heard the matter on an expedited basis and expanded the concept of a SLAPP suit to abuse of process in criminal proceedings. The Full Court found that the private prosecution had no merit and had been brought solely for the purpose of intimidating and harassing the journalist as a result of her reporting specifically on Zuma’s criminal cases, which reporting the Court noted was essential to ensure that the public learns the truth about the criminal allegations, sees justice being done and maintains trust in the criminal justice system.

Zuma sought leave to appeal against the decision, which was refused by the Full Court and by the Supreme Court of Appeal. The Full Court also ordered that the decision setting aside the summons was to be immediately effective and enforceable notwithstanding any appeals Zuma might pursue.


On August 10, 2021, South African legal journalist, Karyn Maughan, published an article referring to a letter explaining why former South African President, Jacob Zuma, would not be attending his scheduled criminal trial. Zuma’s defence team and the prosecutors had agreed to a postponement of the trial due to a medical condition suffered by Zuma. The letter had been attached to both the defence and prosecution’s affidavits in support of the postponement application, and Maughan had received a copy of the prosecution’s unsigned affidavit which had been submitted to the Judge by email, but not officially filed at Court. The article Maughan wrote was only published after all the affidavits had been filed at court.

On September 5, 2022, Maughan received a summons, ordering her to appear in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on October 10, 2022 to face charges of unlawfully disclosing the letter. The summons was issued by Zuma, in his capacity as a private prosecutor. It emerged that Zuma had sought a nolle prosequi certificate – a certificate confirming that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) would not be prosecuting the lead prosecutor in the criminal case against Zuma, Billy Downer, for disclosing the medical information to Maughan. The nolle prosequi was issued on June 6, 2022 and did not refer to Maughan.

On September 21, 2022, Maughan filed an application to have the summons set aside.

On November 21, 2022, the NPA issued a second nolle prosequi certificate, which again did not mention Maughan.

Three media-freedom organizations – the Campaign for Free Expression, Media Monitoring Africa and the South African Editors Forum – applied to be admitted as amici curiae (“friends of the court”) (hereinafter referred to as the “media amici”). Another non-governmental organization, Democracy in Action, was also admitted as amicus curiae (its submissions were aimed in support of Zuma’s case).

Decision Overview

Judges Kruger, Henriques and Masipa delivered a unanimous judgment. The central issue before the Court was whether the summons issued against Maughan was unlawful on account of it being an abuse, including, as the media amici argued, because it constituted a SLAPP suit.

Maughan argued that the summons was invalid as there was no valid nolle prosequi certificate issued in respect of prosecutions against her and because Zuma did not have the requisite legal standing to bring a private prosecution. Maughan argued that the private prosecution was “a gross abuse of process as the summons in the private prosecution has been obtained for the ulterior purpose of intimidating, harassing and preventing her from performing her job as a journalist by freely reporting on [Zuma’s] criminal trial.” [para. 66] In support of her argument, she referred to comments made by Zuma’s representatives, associates and family and his affidavit before court which “demonstrates his animosity towards her” as he described her as “the propaganda machine of the media, a tool used by the NPA to perpetuate falsehoods, a hostile journalist who is incapable of balanced reporting and an ‘anti-Zuma crusader’.” [para. 66] She also submitted that there were no prospects of success of a private prosecution and that it infringed the right of media freedom.

The media amici argued that there were three contextual factors that courts should consider when determining whether there had been an abuse of process in these types of cases: the growing trend to attack journalists, specifically female journalists; the private prosecution in the context of SLAPP suits; and the proper interpretation of a statutory provision that prohibits the distribution of records in the possession of the NPA in the context of the exercise of freedom of expression by the press. [para. 170] The media amici argued that “the private prosecution of Maughan by [Zuma] must be viewed in the context of SLAPP suits”. [para. 186]

Zuma argued that he was a “victim” of a crime which had been committed by Downer providing the letter to Maughan and Maughan publishing it and that he had “suffered personal injury as a consequence of the criminal leaking of [his] medical reports”. [para. 59] He submitted that the three media amici should not have been admitted as they were partisan, advancing only arguments in favour of Maughan’s cases. Zuma argued that SLAPP suits are not applicable in criminal proceedings, as the leading case Mineral Sands v. Reddell “did not extend the scope of the defence to criminal matters or beyond the scope on which the United States developed it, it being limited to defamation suits”. [para. 136] He also submitted that a SLAPP suit defence could only be raised in the criminal trial and not in a civil review application and thus could not be used by amici in a civil case to review and set aside the summons he had issued. He argued that the law should not be developed to include SLAPP suits in a criminal context.

The Full Court found that the nolle prosequi certificates which had been issued did not apply to Maughan and so a private prosecution of Maughan was invalid. Accordingly, the Court set aside the summons issued against Maughan.

Given the importance of the issues, the Court further addressed all the other issues raised by Maughan in her application to have the matter set aside and the arguments raised by the media amici.

The Court accepted that section 7 of the Criminal Procedure Act permits private prosecutions, but only when an individual has an “interest in the issue of the trial”; “that the interest is substantial and peculiar to him”; “that the interest arises from some injury which he individually suffered”; and “that the injury was suffered as a consequence of the commission of the alleged offence”. [para. 55] The Court held that the letter had become a public document and did not include anything confidential, and that any public criticism Zuma received was not due to Maughan’s publication of the letter. Accordingly, it held that there was no violation of Zuma’s right to privacy and no injury in terms of section 7.

In analysing the abuse of process, the Court stressed that there is no “all-encompassing definition of what is meant by an abuse of process” but that the Courts have accepted the need to protect their own process. [para. 70] In essence, an abuse occurs when legal action is brought to facilitate an ulterior purpose, and the Court stressed that “where there is an attempt made to use for ulterior purposes machinery devised for the better administration of justice, a court has a duty to prevent such abuse”. [para. 77] The Court added that the jurisprudence confirms that, while abuse of process is most often found in civil proceedings, it is also applicable to private prosecutions in the criminal realm. In these cases, the Court must ask “whether such private prosecution was either instituted or thereafter conducted for some collateral and improper purpose, rather than with the object of having criminal justice done to an offender”. [para. 77] The Court has a duty to act – but must exercise that duty “with great caution”. [para. 78] The Court also noted that “not only is it vexatious but also constitutes an abuse of process to institute and pursue proceedings which are unsustainable as a certainty”. [para. 79]

The Court referred to the Constitutional Court’s judgment in Mineral Sands on SLAPP suits which had held that “a consideration of both motive and merits play a role in the enquiry into an abuse of process”. [para. 82] It added that a court must consider the facts and circumstances of the case, the intention of the legislature in creating the private prosecution provisions, “the prosecutor’s conduct, the nature of the alleged offence/s and the effect of the prosecution on the accused”, amongst others. [para. 82]

Accordingly, the Court held that when a private prosecution is brought for an ulterior purpose “it constitutes a breach of the principle of legality and amounts to an abuse of the process of the court”, and that an unsustainable prosecution is also an abuse. [para. 85]

In demonstrating the charge against Maughan to be baseless, the Court interrogated the circumstances in which the document came into Maughan’s possession. On August 6, 2021, the spokesperson for Zuma’s foundation announced on social media that Zuma had been admitted to hospital. Given that he was due to appear in his long-delayed criminal trial, Downer and Zuma’s representatives agreed to a postponement. On August 8, a doctor in the South African Military Health Service wrote a letter explaining the medical need for a postponement and Downer informed the criminal court, via affidavit, that they would seek a postponement when the matter was before Court on August 10. A member of the NPA knew that Maughan would be attending the scheduled appearance for the purpose of reporting on the trial, and so sent her a message about the anticipated postponement to save her travelling from Johannesburg to Pietermaritzburg. However, Maughan had already travelled to Pietermaritzburg, and then asked for a copy of Downer’s affidavit. She was given the unsigned affidavit, on condition that she did not publish anything until the signed copy was filed in court. Zuma submitted his postponement application to the criminal court, with the doctor’s letter and his affidavit. On August 10, Downer filed his signed affidavit at Court.  Maughan was advised, and published an article about Zuma’s hospitalization an hour later.

The Court held that the criminal trial judge, who had already considered Zuma’s complaint and dismissed a special plea which had been raised by Zuma about the disclosure of the letter to Maughan, was correct in finding that the letter was not confidential “and, in any event, confidentiality had been waived by the filing of [Zuma’s] affidavit”. [para. 107] The Court stressed that “that these documents are public documents and can be made available” and so, as part of the record of the judicial proceedings, were not confidential. [para. 107]

The Court noted that Maughan was one of the few remaining journalists who continues to report on all Zuma’s litigation “despite the media comments and harassment she has been subject to.” [para. 119] It said that it was “evident” that Zuma “harbours great hostility towards her”, and referred to examples of harassment and hostility on social media in which she was described as a criminal, and “a thing, a bitch, a lying bitch, a white bitch, a witch, a racist, a pig, an alcoholic, a criminal, a hypocrite, a propaganda journalist, … a servant of white privilege, a hack and an askari (traitor)”. [para. 122] The Court found that she had been “harassed and prohibited from proper reporting and does so with a cloud hanging over her head and with the threat of either private prosecution in a criminal court or possible civil litigation being instituted against her”. [para. 123] The Court also noted the threats of physical harm in some comments against Maughan.

The Court accepted that Zuma said that he could not be held responsible for comments made by his Foundation, family or supporters, but found that his affidavit demonstrated his personal animosity towards Maughan. The Court quoted a section from Zuma’s affidavit where he described Maughan’s adoption of the State’s argument that he was seeking to constantly delay his criminal trial and then seeking to set aside the summons against her as “nothing but duplicity and disingenuity laced with a touch of racist bigotry”. [para. 125]

The Court concluded that the private prosecution charges were “unfounded and baseless”, and that Maughan had obtained the documents, in the public interest, and when they were already public documents. [para. 127] It noted that it is common practice for journalists to access court documents to inform their reporting. It found that when Zuma filed the private prosecution against Maughan he knew that she had accessed the documents only once they were public documents and so “the only inference to be drawn from this coupled with the social media attacks on her are done with the intent to intimidate and harass her and prevent her from performing her duties as a journalist”. [para. 129]

Accordingly, the Court held that the private prosecution of Maughan was an infringement of the right to freedom of expression protected by section 16(1) of the Constitution.

In assessing the position of SLAPP suits in South African law, the Court confirmed that the “applicability of SLAPP suits in our law is the subject of a unanimous Constitutional Court decision in Mineral Sands”. [para. 172] The Court described SLAPP suits as “a means by which lawsuits are instituted to quash criticism and debate through litigation that is deemed an abuse of process” and that SLAPP suits “involving journalists are instituted to intimidate and harass them and prevent them from reporting”. [para. 185] With reference to a 1998 case on private prosecutions, Phillips v. Botha, the Court held that “there seems to be no merit in [Zuma’s] assertion and that of [the other amicus curia, Democracy in Action] that SLAPP suits ought not to apply to criminal proceedings or private prosecutions”. [para. 187]

The Court agreed with the media amici that there must be protection from SLAPP suits in criminal cases – particularly where private prosecutions are permitted in the law, because of the lack of safeguards that exist in private prosecutions. It noted that without these safeguards, criminal proceedings and the threat of them “are used to intimidate, harass, sensor and silence critics”. [para. 188] It agreed with the media amici that the private prosecution “has all the elements of a SLAPP suit in that, it relates to her obligations as a journalist to report on matters in the public interest … It infringes on her right to freedom of expression, specifically, press freedom and the public’s right to receive such information [and] has the effect of intimidating, harassing and silencing her as its ulterior motive”. [para. 192]

The Court stressed the importance of freedom of expression and a free press to democracy, and that the constitutional protection of this right requires a recognition of the need for protection against SLAPP suits brought against journalists. It noted that South African jurisprudence established that “it is quintessential to the freedom of expression and freedom of the press to protect the abuse to intimidate, censor and silence journalists by means of SLAPP suits”. In coming to that view, the Court relied on the submissions of the media amici that drew attention to international instruments, such the UN Special Rapporteur, the OSCE, the OAS Special Rapporteur, the ACHPR Special Rapporteur and the UN Human Rights Council, which have recognized “attacks on journalists, specifically female journalists” and that SLAPP suits give recognition to this [para. 190].

Accordingly, the Court held that Maughan’s private prosecution “arises from her reporting specifically on [Zuma’s] criminal cases”, and that her reporting “is essential to ensure that the public learns the truth about the criminal allegations, sees justice being done and maintains trust in the criminal justice system” [para. 190] With reference to Khumalo v. Holomisa and Maharaj v. M&G Centre of Investigative Journalism, the Court stressed that Maughan has a right and a duty to report on these issues. It noted that the attacks Maughan had detailed in her submissions were “examples of online intimidation, which demonstrate the harmful environment in which journalists, specifically female journalists, have to conduct their work”. [para. 193]

The Court rejected Zuma’s argument that interdicting his private prosecution would “result in the media and journalists acting with impunity” and held that the present case was not a blanket protection against private prosecutions, but that it simply protected the media against “a meritless private prosecution which amounts to an abuse of process”. [para. 194]

In dismissing the case, the Court heard the matter on an expedited basis and issued punitive costs against Zuma. The media amici had specifically drawn attention to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, [1] and the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, [2] who had highlighted that the use of SLAPP suits in South Africa is becoming a trend, and the Special Rapporteur had recommended that States should protect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association by, among other things, encouraging early dismissal of such suits and the use of measures to penalise abuse, including through costs awards.

[1] Info Note on SLAPPs and FoAA rights, available at

[2] Examples of such measures were contained in the special report on Legal Harassment and the Abuse of the Judicial System against the Media in 2021, by the Representative on Freedom of the Media for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) (see Special report on Legal Harassment and the Abuse of the Judicial System against the Media (23 November 2021) available at  The Special Report (at p 10) recommends that states adopt protection or safeguards for journalists against such abusive lawsuits, and called for a form of early dismissal procedure in which the harm of dismissal can be balanced against the harm of letting the trial proceed as well as a way to hold litigant responsible for their abuse of the law, including through a costs award.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

In expanding the concept of a SLAPP suit to abuse of process in criminal proceedings and highlighting the need for heightened protection where the subject of a SLAPP suit is a journalist, this judgment contributes to a growing SLAPP jurisprudence in South Africa where the outcome is reflective of the approach called for by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, who adopted a joint declaration on investigating corruption,[1] stressing that media workers who investigate corruption “should not be targeted for legal or other harassment in retaliation for their work”.

[1] Joint Declaration on Regulation of the Media, Restrictions on Journalists and Investigating Corruption (2003) available at

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • S. Afr., Constitution of South Africa (1996), sec. 16.
  • S. Afr., The NDPP v. Media 24 Limited & others and HC Van Breda v. Media 24 Limited and others (425/2017) [2017] ZASCA 97 (21 June 2017)
  • S. Afr., Mineral Sands Resources (Pty) Ltd v. Reddell; Mineral Commodities Limited v. Dlamini; Mineral Commodities Limited v. Clarke, CCT67/21 (2022)
  • S. Afr., Khumalo and others v Holomisa, 2002 (5) SA 401 (CC).
  • S. Afr., SABC Ltd v NDPP, 2007 (1) SA 523 (CC)
  • S. Afr., Maharaj v. M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, 2018 (1) SA 471 (SCA)
  • S. Afr., Phillips v. Botha, 1999 (2) SA 555 (SCA)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

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