President Paul Kagame has reacted to Wednesday's decision by the Supreme Court to grant the Head of State special legal protection from defamation and public humiliation, saying there is no need for the clause.
In the landmark ruling, the court invalidated articles in the penal law criminalising defamation and public insult against national leaders, persons in charge of public service, as well as religious leaders and rituals.
But the judges, leg by Chief Justice Sam Rugege, retained a clause protecting the Head of State from defamation and public humiliation.
However, while Kagame noted that he respected the independence of the Judiciary, he said he was not satisfied with the decision of the court.
Kagame said all cases of defamation and public humiliation ought to be treated as civil matters, with no exception.
Richard Mugisha consults with his lawyers Moise Nkundabarashi and Florida Kabasinga at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. File.
He urged further debate on "this important matter."
"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 Office of The President, released late Thursday, reads in part.
It adds: "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."
President Kagame's position has always been that this should be a civil, not a criminal matter," the statement said. "The Head of State trusts that debate would continue on this important matter."
In their ruling, the judges said that, with the exception of the President, having the provisions in the penal law contravened the constitution, which provides for absolute freedom of expression and press freedoms, as well as international conventions which Rwanda is party to.
As a result, such cases shall be handled through civil litigations, the court ruled. In civil cases, no one can be sent to jail, instead the offender is usually asked to pay damages in case of conviction.
However, the court ruled that public insult or defamation against the person of the President remains a criminal offence under the penal law which came into force in August. The offence attracts a maximum sentence of seven years on conviction.
The court also nullified the clause that criminalised publication of caricatures that humiliated all officials, including the President.
The Supreme Court bench was delivering the much-awaited ruling on a constitutional challenge filed by Richard Mugisha, a Kigali-based lawyer. Through his lawyers, Mugisha argued that the provisions were inconsistent with the spirit behind the otherwise progressive legal regime of the country.
He was represented by Florida Kabasinga, the Managing Partner of Certa Law, and Moise Nkundabarashi, of Trust Law Chambers.
Speaking to Saturday Times on behalf of her client, Kabasinga commended the President for his stand.
"As a lawyer, I respect court decisions, especially those of our Supreme Court. However, I was very disappointed in the recent decision on account of the discriminatory treatment granted to the president. That discriminatory treatment (of public officials) is the reason why my client went to court.
She added: "Legally, I also find that the Supreme Court contradicted itself in its ruling when it decided that other categories of leaders are not special enough to warrant laws protecting them. When it came to the president, the reasoning was the opposite."
Reacting to the statement from the Office of the President, Justice Minister and Attorney General Johnston Busingye said the President's position on the issue is no surprise, given his track record and stand on transparency, accountability and probity of public officials.
"It is not surprising that he would clarify his personal position on the issue after the Supreme Court decided that the offences contravene the constitution except in regard to the Head of State," Busingye said.
Asked about the possible way forward in view of the President's position, Busingye said the matter remains subject to debate.
"Government will engage with all stakeholders and take appropriate action, in compliance with the laws," he said.
Media body 'greatly encouraged'
Gonzaga Muganwa, the Executive Secretary of Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ), one of the parties that appeared as Amici Curiae (Friends of Court') in the case, welcomed the latest developments.
"We welcome and are greatly encouraged by the President's statement," he said Friday.
He added, "All defamation should be civil and particular to media, self - regulation should be used for correction. Journalists will fully participate in the continuing debate."
That said, Muganwa added, "we underscore that defamation and insults using media are ethical breaches. We encourage constructive criticism and scrutiny, not insults."
Wednesday's ruling by the Supreme Court made Rwanda the 6th African country to decriminalise defamation, others being Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia and Zimbabwe.
In a related development, the Supreme Court rejected Mugisha's attempt to nullify the clause on adultery, which remains a criminal offence in the penal law, arguing that the law should protect the sanctity of the family.