Rwandan President Paul Kagame is not happy with the country’s top court decision to uphold a law that prescribes jail terms to anyone who insults the president.
The law, which went into force in August last year, punishes anyone insulting or defaming the president with at least five years in prison. The media, campaigners, and rights groups condemned the law, saying that it undermined freedom of expression.
A lawyer, Richard Mugisha, petitioned the country’s Supreme Court, in his private capacity, challenging the law. The court, however, ruled Wednesday that the law should remain because the president is an important personality to the nation whose integrity cannot be allowed to be insulted, reports The Chronicles.
Kagame has, in response, taken issues with the Supreme Court’s decision, and said that defamation should be decriminalised, irrespective of who is involved.
“The President of the Republic respects the independence of the judiciary and the recent Supreme Court decision to decriminalise the offences related to humiliation of public officials,” a statement from the presidency said.
“The President, however, takes issue with the decision to retain as criminal offences, insults or defamation against the Head of State, who is also a public official. His position has always been that this should be a civil, not a criminal matter.”
In Rwanda, where hate speech by a radio station led to the 1994 genocide, there have been concerns about what has been described as tight restrictions on freedom of speech.
Kagame, whose leadership is often celebrated as an African success story, is accused by critics of being intolerant to dissent.
A new media law that was passed in the country’s parliament in 2017 essentially criminalized defamation of any official, including religious groups or their symbols. The media regarded the law as an infringement on freedom of speech and wanted Articles 154, 233, and 236 thrown out.
Article 154, cited by The Chronicles, 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 offence.
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 offence.
The articles were maintained when the law was signed by Kagame last August, compelling Lawyer Mugisha to challenge the said articles in the country’s top court. He was joined by the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) in subsequent sessions, who filed a petition to be “friend of the court”.
But the Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Prof Sam Rugege, on Wednesday, repealed the law that banned the publication of political cartoons, but upheld Article 236 that says it is a crime to insult the president.
“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,” Prof Rugege was quoted by The Chronicles.
“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.”
Ruling against Article 233 about the 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.”
Rwanda Journalists Association executive secretary Gonzaga Muganwa told Reuters that even though the law banning cartoons has been scrapped, “We still believe the president is an elected official who should be scrutinized.”
“On that part, we are particularly not happy.”
Meanwhile, Kagame, in the statement from his office, said he is hopeful that there would be further debates on the matter.