The Government has proposed harsher punishment for defamation under the new draft Penal Code currently under review.
Previously, anyone found guilty of defamation would face a jail term of six to 12 months and a fine of Rwf1 million to Rwf5 million.
However, Article 169 of the proposed Penal Code indicates that when convicted, one is liable to a jail term of not less than two years but not exceeding three years and a fine of not less than Rwf3 million but not exceeding Rwf5 million.
There is still room for changes as stakeholders such as the Rwanda Journalists Association (ARJ) are yet to give lawmakers their inputs, but the tough stance on defamation, officials say, is largely designed to protect public order or morals.
Appearing before the Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender, yesterday, the Minister for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, called for defamation offenders to be punished harshly so as to discourage such incidents.
The minister said freedom of expression – or of the press – is not an absolute right, anywhere in the world, adding that it must go hand-in-hand with responsibility.
Backing the minister, the Rwanda Law Reform Commission (RLRC) chairperson Aimable Havugiyaremye told the MPs that punishments for defamation are not found in Rwanda alone.
Havugiyaremye listed countries such as Singapore, Canada, India, and Kenya, where he said the crime attracts not less than three year jail term.
“We all support freedom of expression but freedom of expression has limits. We all care about human rights and everything we do is about protecting human rights,” he said.
While alluding to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Havugiyaremye said the exercise of rights provided for in the article carries with it special duties and responsibilities.
It may be subject to some restrictions as provided by law, for respect of the rights or reputations of others, and for the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals, he said.
“Every country has its own situation, and history. For us we care about our good morals, safety and the security of our nation. A country can make its own choices and decisions. We punish defamation in our nationl interest,” he added.
MP Alfred Kayiranga Rwasa, the chairperson of the committee, argued that punishment of defamation is something Rwandan journalists should support, especially knowing the country’s history and the role of the media in fanning the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Undermine media self-regulation
But Gonza Muganwa, the executive secretary of ARJ, told The New Times that if the proposed articles are passed in their current form, they will contradict government policy as well as undermine media self-regulation.
“If an individual feels there are severe punitive measures, they will not feel obliged to take their complaint to the media self-regulation body. This is why we want the country to decriminalise defamation and treat it as a civil case,” Muganwa said.
“It is wrong for a media house or journalist to defame. But there are other mechanisms to deal with it, because Article 2 of the journalists’ code of conduct in Rwanda prohibits defamation and provides ways of punishing the same, most importantly through: the right of reply, apology, corrections, fines, suspension of a media house, and so on.”
In the last four years of media self-regulation experiment, he noted, the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), the media self-regulatory body, handled more than 50 complaints concerning defamation and in most of them, the concerned parties were satisfied.
Public condemnation of a journalist or media house found guilty of defamation by the self-regulation mechanism is “much more impactful than having journalists jailed” and “made heroes.” Jailing journalists also unnecessarily tarnishes the image of the country, he said.
“Our position is consistent with what we have been discussing with media policy makers in the country. They already promised decriminalisation and support for media self-regulation, which is part of the resolutions adopted by the Government in the recent periodic review,” Muganwa said.
Muganwa attended the committee session and told the lawmakers that his office would submit its views on the matter.