29 December 2017

Rwanda: Journalists Welcome Move to Decriminalise Defamation

Photo: Cyril Ndegeya/The East African
Journalists (file photo).

Media practitioners have welcomed the move by Members of Parliament to drop defamation from the Penal Code which is currently under review, paving way for its decriminalisation, once the bill is passed by Parliament and enacted into law.

The development could bring to an end a decade-long push to scrap from the country's law books an offence which journalists argued infringed on freedom of expression.

Under the proposed Penal Code that was approved for debate in parliament in October this year, media practitioners would face up to 7-year prison sentence or a fine of $8,353 (Rwf7 million) if found guilty.

Article 169 of the current penal code says that when one is convicted of the crime of defamation, they are liable to imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to Rwf5 million.

"Any person abusing their freedom of expression guaranteed by the State, who, in public and maliciously attributes to another person, an act or behavior which is likely to adversely affect the other person's reputation or dignity or degrade him/her in public opinion commits an offence. When convicted by a court, he/she is liable to a term of imprisonment of not less than two (2) years but not exceeding three (3) years and a fine of not less than three million (3,000,000) but not exceeding five million (5,000,000) Rwandan francs or one of these penalties," it reads.

But with yesterday's development, defamation will cease to be a criminal offence if the bill is passed by Parliament and susquently enacted into law as is.

Presenting this article to the Lower House, the Chairperson of the Political and Affairs and Gender Committee, Alfred Rwasa Kayiranga, said that decriminalising defamation did not necessarily mean that those guilty of the crime will be let free but such cases will be dealt with as civil matter.

"We felt that the person who is accused of defamation should be held accountable for their actions but as a civil and not a criminal case," he said.

In a telephone interview with The New Times, the Executive Secretary of the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ), Gonzaga Muganwa, said that the development was a step in the right direction.

"This obviously is good news. We are happy that the lawmakers listened to our ideas and we are happy that they have played their role in promoting and strengthening freedom of expression and self-regulation," he said.

Muganwa added that the country's self-regulation mechanism - Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) - has successfully handled defamation related cases.

The Secretary General of ARJ, Edmund Kagire, called on journalists to use this as an opportunity to be even more responsible in their work.

"This boosts the self-regulation process which the government committed to put in place and support. It means that Rwanda as a country commits to respecting freedom of expression and freedom of the press. On our part as the media, this doesn't mean that we cease to be responsible. Instead, it means that the public trusts us to be responsible and that's what we should do," he said.

The government, through the Rwanda Law Reform Commission, embarked on reviewing the penal law in 2015 as part of efforts to keep the country's laws up-to-date.

In the proposed amendments to the Penal Code, some offences and penalties will be removed from the Organic Law of 2012 instituting the Penal Code and inserted in special laws.

Unlike the current Penal Code, which has 766 articles in total and remains a collection of all offences and penalties that were in different specific laws, the proposed Penal Code has 360 articles.

Debate on the Penal Code continues today.

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