March 16, 2019

Journalists File Supreme Court Amicus Curiae To Remove “Interference” Laws

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Media covering the African Heads of State Summit in Kigali, March 2018

The Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) has filed Amicus curiae or a petition to be “friend of the court” in a case currently before the Supreme Court challenging some articles in the new penal code which they want removed.

The journalists body is asking to be admitted to the case in which a private citizen had filed in December last year. Lawyer Richard Mugisha from
Trust Law Chamber firm wants specifically three articles struck down from the penal code that came into force in September 2018.

They are Article 154, 233, and 236

Article 154 reads: Any person who publicly defames religious rituals, symbols and religious cult objects by use of actions, words, signs, writings, gestures or threats, whether carried out at the place where rituals are intended to be performed or where they are normally performed, commits an offence.

Upon conviction, he/she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than fifteen (15) days but less than three (3) months and a fine of not less than one hundred thousand Rwandan francs (FRW 100,000) and not more than two hundred thousand Rwandan francs (FRW 2,000,000)or only one of the penalties.

Article 233 reads: Any person who, verbally, by gestures or threats, in writings or cartoons, humiliates a member of Parliament when exercising his/her mandate, a member of the Cabinet, security officers or any other person in charge of a public service in the performance or in connection with the performance of his/her duties, commits an offence.

Upon conviction, he/she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than one (1) year and less than two (2) years and a fine of not less than five hundred thousand Rwandan francs (FRW 500,000) and not more than one million (FRW 1,000,000) Rwandan francs.

Article 236 reads: Any person who insults or defames the President of the Republic, commits an offence.

Upon conviction, he/she is liable to a term imprisonment of not less than five (5) years and not more than seven (7) years and a fine of more than five million (FRW 5,000,000) Rwandan francs and not more than seven million (FRW 7,000,000) Rwandan francs.

Following the petition by Mugisha, the Supreme Court ruled on January 18 that the case has merits and can go on. The 5-penel bench led by chief Justice Prof Sam Rugege also ruled that all parties who are concerned with the issue should submit their written arguments before February 28.

The journalists body convened its members on Friday to strategize. It has however already filed its arguments to the Supreme Court as “friend of the court”.

What this essentially means is that ARJ may not have filed the original case challenging the contested articles, but it is telling the Supreme Court that the laws directly impact their trade.

The journalists are explaining in specific detail how the laws will curtail the press, even if they are made to generally cover all Rwandans.

With these articles, the state or any individual will be able to go to court when they are not happy with any content published in the media in Rwanda.

In the 16-page document written in Kinyarwanda, ARJ argues that the three articles “abrige” on their rights to freedom of speech and expression which are enshrined in the 2003 constitution.

When the penal code was being reviewed by the executive and parliament, campaign groups were up in arms over several articles, some of which criminalised media errors. In the final penal code, there are no laws specifically mentioning the media, but the actions that some articles describe are done by the media such as cartoons.

“It does not mean that ARJ intends to make journalists untouchable…instead ARJ would like the public or anyone who may feel they have been defamed by a journalst, to understand that there are other platforms they can petition, if necessary be paid damaged,” reads the ARJ document.

They say it is the duty of the SUpreme Court to “strike down the legislation or the executive action if it causes direct interference” on press freedom.

“we are demanding the scraping of articles on defamation of the president, cartooning of politicians and defaming of the religious symbols,” said Gonza Muganwa the ARJ executive secretary.

The hearing has been set for Monday march 18, 2019 8am at the Supreme Court of Rwanda. All parties will appear to orally submit to the bench.

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