April 24, 2019

Supreme Court Throws out Contested Media Laws, Insulting President Remains Criminal

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City lawyer Richard Mugisha (R) sits through the Supreme Court session today with his legal team

The journey to overturn several articles in the penal code specifically those concerning the media ended Wednesday with a historic Supreme Court ruling that has invalidated some of them.

The latest development adds another layer of protection for media houses and journalists who risked years in jail for drawing a cartoon that “humiliates” parliamentarian or any senior government official.

The articles were essentially criminalizing defamation of any officials, and even religious groups or their symbols.

Until it was signed by the President in mid last year, the new penal code had been subject of fierce criticism from the media, campaigners and women rights groups.

The media wanted Articles 154, 233, and 236 – all thrown out.

Article 154 read: 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 offense.

Article 233 read: 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 offense.

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

Despite pleading with Parliament, the Articles were maintained. Lawyer Richard Mugisha from Trust Law Chamber firm, came to their rescue.

In September last year, he filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to have the three articles kicked out.

In subsequent sessions, the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) also joined him, filing Amicus curiae or a petition to be “friend of the court”.

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

Today, the Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Prof Sam Rugege, agreed with the petitioners on some articles – but refused to touch Article 236.

The President is a very important personality to the nation whose integrity cannot be allowed to be insulted, said the bench in the ruling before a small audience.

“The President of the Republic is a symbol of unity, requiring him or her to appear before a court to defend his rights will undermine his integrity and cause unnecessary divisions in Rwandan society,” said Prof Rugege.

“The Court finds that insulting the President has more weight compared to ordinary people insulting each other and therefore cannot be held by the same standard. Ordinary people can seek court redress and compensation. Putting the President through such processes brings his person into disrepute.”

In squashing the Article 233 about humiliation of officials, the bench said: “Freedom of expression must not have limitations in law, reason why this article criminalizing defamation of government officials suppresses freedom of expression.”

With the maintenance of Article 236 on defamation of the President, it means upon conviction, you will be jailed for up to seven years and fined Rwf 7million.

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