Rwandan MPs criminalise cartoons, satirical articles that mock politicians, leaders
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 $1,150
KIGALI–Drawing of cartoons and writing satirical or humorous articles that portray politicians and other leaders in an unflattering manner will become a criminal offence in Rwanda, punishable with jail term, should the central African country’s President Paul Kagame assent to a revised penal code in its current form.
Late last month, Rwanda’s parliament passed a revised penal code with major adjustments to the country’s laws on abortion, adultery, prostitution, as well as corruption and embezzlement. B
While the social issues generated a lot of debate throughout out the review process, new articles in the penal code that touch on media regulations and punishment were silently passed too.
The new 335-article penal code might have decriminalised general defamation for which a journalist would previously be sent to a year in jail and a fine of Rwf5 million (about $5,800) on conviction–the Rwanda Media Commission is now mandated to handle the matter–but editorial cartoonists and satirists now need to thrive without depicting politicians and other leaders in a manner that mocks their deeds.
As well as cartoons, the penal code has no place for humorists who write satirical articles that thrive on mockery of personalities, especially leaders, has been criminalised.
“Writings or cartoons that humiliate Members of Parliament, 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).
The new law doubles the punishment if a cartoon or writing is about a session of parliament or top ranking official.
Ironically, the Rwandan legislators had extensive consultations with various stakeholders during the penal code review process that started in 2015.
As part of their proposals, media practitioners pushed for de-criminalisation of defamation, as well as other press offences in the revised penal code, with Gonzaga Muganwa, the executive secretary of the Association of Rwanda Journalists (ARJ), arguing at the time that offences committed by journalists through media should have “no space” in the penal code, but should be dealt with through a civil arrangement or the media Code of Ethics.
“Press offences shouldn’t be penal, they are always in civil code, journalism is not a crime, in a civilised society, you don’t criminalise press,” Robert Mugabe, a Rwandan journalist, is quoted by The East African newspaper as saying in 2016.
The criminalisation of media offences has for long been cited by independent media players as repressive in nature, intended to intimidate and frustrate free media in Rwanda.
Media practitioners and experts say the new law will grossly limit the ability of journalists to hold public officials to account.
Already, journalists in Rwanda self-regulate their articles, working closely with editors to avoid “courting troubles with powers that be.”
There is no direct censorship and journalists are seldom arrested or directly questioned by the state for their writings, but there are things that journalists don’t do because they are not confident enough.
But 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,” RJA’s Muganwa told The East African.
“This law is a classic case of people legislating to protect themselves rather than looking out for the interests of the public.”
Muganwa would be vindicated by some recent issues. During debate on the penal code amendment in the Chamber of Deputies’ Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender last year, lawmakers and State Minister for Constitutional and Legal Affairs Evode Uwizeyimana moved to block journalists from recording proceedings, citing misrepresentation by some local media.
Due in part to self-regulation, the Rwandan media setting is quiet on humour. Few creative writers venture into an arena that would draw them head-on against political leadership if they freely satirised issues in the country.
Like satirical writing, cartoons are largely limited to non-political affairs and when they touch on politics, they can only go as far as general caricature without touching on the person of an individual. This means a cartoonist cannot sketch the likelihood of their subjects to the extent that are identifiable.
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 Rwandan government moved to review the penal code as part of wide efforts to amend most of the laws of the country, including the Constitution, to keep them up-to-date with the present situation and also ensure that new and emerging crimes are punished.
The revised penal code now awaits a presidential assent before it can be published in the national gazette to effect its implementation.
Additional information by Agencies