Rwanda decrimalises defamation but cartoons that mock officials now illegal

PRESS FREEDOM | The tetchy issues of general defamation and related press offences are no longer criminal in Rwanda after the Kigali government struck them down from the penal code on Thursday.

But in a give-and-take transaction of legal gymnastics, the Rwandan government criminalised cartoons and satirical articles that are deemed to “mock” the head of state, public or security officials for their works.

In June, the Rwandan parliament a passed a revised penal code with clauses that indicated that drawing cartoons that mock or publishing humorous articles that portray politicians and other leaders in an unflattering manner is a criminal offence punishable with jail term.

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And on Thursday, the new penal code was gazetted with Article 233 and 236 closing the door on cartoonists, satirists and opinion writers who criticise public officials.

“Writings or cartoons that humiliate legislators, ministers, other government authorities and security agencies when they are exercising their mandate will be punishable by law,” says Article 233 of the new penal code.

An individual who draws such a cartoon or satirises the person or work of such persons risks imprisonment of up to two years, and a fine of up to Rwf1 million (about $1,150).

Stanislaus Olonde, a Kenyan-based cartoonist who published extensively with The New Times newspaper over four years was not allowed to draw the president or any member of the first family or anything critical of the government.

“During Kagame’s third term bid. any idea of a cartoon depicting third term was not welcome even if it was a cartoon of third term in other countries,” he told this news website.

The new law doubles the punishment if a cartoon or writing is about a session of parliament or top ranking official.

Already, journalists in Rwanda self-regulate their articles, working closely with editors to avoid “courting troubles with powers that be.” Decriminalising defamation means the media regulators will handle related complaints.

And Rwanda Media Commission, a media self-regulatory organ created by the government in 2013, has always sought to have the same authority to handle complaints against the media rather than for the state to have legal say in it.

“While the Rwanda Journalists Association considers defamation a major ethical breach -the reason it is proscribed by the Journalists and Media Practitioners Code of Conduct, we uphold that related complaints should be handled by the Media Self-Regulatory Body (Rwanda Media Commission) and in other cases by civil restitution,” Gonzaga Muganwa, the association executive secretary said in a statement.

With the new law, there are fears that the ideals of self-regulation will lose meaning.

“In journalism, cartoons are, by nature, humorous, thus it is easy for the subject to perceive them as humiliating even when the intention is quite different,” Muganwa said in a past interview.

“This law is a classic case of people legislating to protect themselves rather than looking out for the interests of the public.”

Muganwa said they were concerned with Articles 233 and 236 in the penal code relating to cartooning of politicians/public officials and defamation against the president.

“Going forward, the Association will carry out consultations and seek legal interpretations on if and how the two articles could affect press freedom and advise members accordingly,” Muganwa said.

ARJ said decriminalisation of defamation and press offences is a culmination of many years of advocacy by the media fraternity and dialogue with government and other stakeholders.

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