Rwanda: Supreme court allows petition seeking to repeal articles that criminalise Kagame cartoons
In October, Rwandan parliament passed a revised penal code that criminalised drawing cartoons or writing articles that mock the person of the president, political leaders, security chiefs and others.
KIGALI | The supreme court in Kigali has certified that Richard Mugisha’s petition seeking repeal of provisions of Rwanda’s new penal code that criminalise cartoons and satirical writings about or of President Paul Kagame is legally competent.
The Friday by Rwanda’s highest court means the new penal code could return to Parliament for amendments of some of its most contentious articles related to defamation against the person of the president as well as on media freedoms and adultery.
The prosecution had argued that Mugisha, a co-founder of Trust Law Chambers in Kigali, did not have the legal standing or competence to challenge for a review.
The court adjourned the hearing to March 18 when Mugisha will be allowed to present his arguments for demanding repeal of the contentious articles.
Filing his petition late last year, Mugisha said the new penal code, gazetted in October last year, is unconstitutional and contravened international charters that protect freedom of expression.
“Such provisions undermine the spirit of the country’s constitution and serve to undermine to work of journalists in holding government authorities accountable,” Mugisha told the court.
#Rwanda Supreme Court will shortly resume hearing a petition by @Richardmug challenging constitutionality of some articles in Penal Code I.e. on adultery, cartooning politicians, and defaming the president @arjrwanda @CPJAfrica @RushAfrican
— Gonzaga Muganwa (@ibiriti) January 18, 2019
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.
“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.
Mugisha wants the article repealed, arguing further that it does not make sense to imprison someone who writes or draws a cartoon such leaders for two years or fine them up to Rwf1 million (about $1100) as the new law states.
He also wants Article 236, which punishes any person who insults the person of the president with up to seven years in jail and a fine up to Rwf7 million ($7,800).
The particular articles of the Rwandan penal code drew a lot of condemnation both locally and internationally with media practitioners decrying the “draconian” law as coming from selfish interests of politicians who seek to place themselves above reproach.
“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,” said Gonzaga Muganwa, the executive secretary of Rwanda Journalists Association.
“This law is a classic case of people legislating to protect themselves rather than looking out for the interests of the public.”
Mugisha told as much to the supreme court, arguing that since the Rwandan constitution guaranteed equal protection, government officials were no exception.
“The laws should protect every Rwandan regardless of what job they do. These articles will censor media from using text, drawings of videos of officials yet it is part of their work,” he said.
“Freedom of press and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the constitution. It is my prayer that the court reviews these articles in the penal code because they conflict with the supreme law.”
Should the supreme court order the repeal, it means the penal code will have to return to parliament for a review before it has even claimed a “victim.”
In Rwanda, the air thick with the anticipation that the penal code will be reviewed after President Kagame appeared to express reservations about the articles that touch on media freedom.
After publishing the new penal code in the official gazette, Kagame is said to have changed his stance amid strong criticism and reminders that self-regulatory law in the media was already doing enough to keep journalists and cartoonists from “going overboard” in their works.