Rwanda: Journalists Laud Supreme Court Landmark Ruling on Defamation

Richard Mugisha (right) consults with his lawyers Moise Nkundabarashi and Florida Kabasinga (left) at the Supreme Court where the landmark ruling in the case filed by Mugisha, challenging some of the provisions in the law that went into force in August, 2018.

Media practitioners have welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court to rule against some provisions in the penal law, which included those that criminalise humiliation of public authorities as well as defamation of religious rituals in the public.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday delivered the landmark ruling in the case filed by to city lawyer, Richard Mugisha, challenging some of the provisions in the law that went into force in August last year.

Mugisha, a founding partner of Trust Law Chambers, petitioned the highest court of the land, in his private capacity, challenging the provisions among others, criminalising defamation and humiliation of public officials on duty and public defamation of religious rituals.

The four judge-bench led by Chief Justice Sam Rugege ruled that the articles 233 and 154 criminalising humiliation of national leaders and persons in charge of public service and Public defamation of religious rituals were against freedom of expression and press freedom granted by the constitution.

Chief Justice Sam Rugege (R) interacts with Justice Jean Baptiste Mutashya during the ruling. Sam Ngendahimana.

He said that both the constitution of the Republic of Rwanda and international conventions to which Rwanda is a signatory provided for freedom of expression and that freedom should be expressed in any way to reach the intended audience.

"The Supreme Court finds article 233 of the penal law protecting certain leaders against defamation, in contravention of article 38 of the constitution that provides for freedom of expression and access to information by media practitioners," ruled Chief Justice Rugege.

"Freedom of expression is key to holding those in leadership to account and this is a major tenet of any democratic dispensation. Freedom should be enjoyed without any limitations," he added.

Regarding the issue of public defamation of religious rituals, Justice Jean Baptisite Mutashya said many countries have scrapped defamation from their penal codes, stressing the government has no responsibility to protect religious entities in particular above everybody else.

"We therefore find no reasons why the laws of our country should prohibit the media from holding religious leaders and rituals accountable," he said, adding that Rwanda is a secular country.

"The Constitution of Rwanda and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants journalists the right to go about their duties without any encumbrance; it should therefore not be the law to impede them," he said.

A positive move

Speaking to The New Times shortly after the ruling, Gonzaga Muganwa, the executive secretary of Rwanda Journalists Association said the decision by the Supreme Court was long overdue.

"We largely welcome the decision by the Supreme Court for having taken this decision, we think it expands our space as journalists, we thought these articles were unnecessary," he said.

"There are no cases but most of what arises has been self-censorship; most journalists deciding not to use cartoons and drawings and we think this self-censorship will reduce," he added.

The Supreme Court however ruled to keep in the penal code, the provisions on adultery, desertion of the marital home and concubinage.

Reading the ruling, Justice Aloysia Cyanzayire said that the framers of the law wanted to protect the sanctity of the family, which was still relevant in the Rwandan context.

"Adultery may also lead to misuse of family resources which may victimise other family members, especially the most vulnerable like children," said Justice Cyanzayire.

She however said that the spirit of the law should be such that it encourages reconciliation, saying that the provision in the current form should be amended to ease reconciliation between spouses if they so wish.

"There should not be any impediments; at whatever stage of the case, where the couple have reconciled, the affected party should deserve a right to call for a stop of the prosecution at any stage of the case," she said, adding that it is in everybody's interest that the spouses reconcile.

The court also maintained that that insults or defamation against the President of the Republic constitutes a crime given the high responsibility of the president and the respect that he deserves.

During an interview after the ruling, Mugisha said he was satisfied with the decision of the court.

"We are happy that the Supreme Court has agreed with us in some respect and as lawyers we also agree that once the court rules that is the end of the match, we still believe that we gave the best of our arguments but there are other also who disagreed with us," he said.

He said that times have changed and media has evolved adding that some of the provision that protect the Head of State would not really favour both social media and mainstream media.

The substantive hearing in January attracted a number of Friends of Court (Amicus Curiae) among them Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ), the School of Law of the University of Rwanda and Profemme Twese Hamwe.

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