The decision by the Supreme Court on Wednesday that struck down a law on publication of cartoons or writing articles that humiliate public officials such as MPs or ministers is respected but maintaining a law which says insulting the head of state is a criminal offense could recquire more debate.
In a statement released on Friday, President Paul Kagame commented on the Supreme Court ruling, saying the Head of State is also a public official.
“The President of the Republic respects the independence of the judiciary and the recent Supreme Court decision to decriminalize the offences related to humiliation of public officials. 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,” the statement from the President’s office said.
“The President trusts that there will be further debate on this important matter,” it said.
Lawyer Richard Mugisha, had challenged the laws on publication of cartoons or writing articles that humiliate public officials and law which says that insults against the president is criminal offense in the new penal code.
The penal code criminalizes verbal, gesture or threats in writing or cartoons of public servants in their duties as a crime of humiliation punishable with up to two-year imprisonment and 1 million Rwandan Francs on conviction. The Supreme Court struck down this as unconstitutional.
The law on which the President expressed his views stipulates that any person who insults or defames the President of the Republic is liable to seven-year jail term and fine of 7 million Rwandan Francs.
The Supreme Court upheld the law on insults of the president due to the responsibility of the office holder.
The petitioner had argued that media cases should be addressed by the media self-regulation body, Rwanda Media Commission.
The lawyer had also sought decriminalization of another popular provision on adultery but the court rejected it.
Rwandan government decriminalized general defamation and press offences in the 2018 penal code following concerted dialogue, advocacy by the media fraternity and other stakeholders.
It was seen as an important step by the government towards expanding freedom of the press and free expression in general.
But the new penal code in Articles 233 and 236 criminalizes cartooning of politicians, public officials and defamation against the President of the Republic respectively.
Rwanda’s new penal code came into force in August 2018 after review of the old penal code by Rwanda Law Reform Commission before Parliament eventually enacted it into law.