Supreme Court decriminalises publication of cartoons that ‘humiliate’ public officials

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In a landmark public interest litigation, Rwanda’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that laws criminalizing publication of cartoons that humiliate public officials and public defamation of religious rituals should be removed from the country’s new penal laws, as they contravene the spirit of country’s Constitution and are an impediment on press freedoms.

Articles that criminalize publication of cartoons that defame public officials such as Member of Parliament or Cabinet and public defamation of religious rituals were challenged in December last year by Rwandan lawyer, Richard Mugisha, who argued that the articles were against the spirit of the country’s Constitution which guarantees freedom of the press.

Mugisha through his lawyers challenged six articles altogether which he wanted removed from the penal code.
These include article 236 on insults or defamation against the President of the Republic, article 233 on humiliation of public officials such as Member of Parliament or Cabinet and article 154 on public defamation of religious rituals.Others are Article 139 on desertion of the marital home, article 136 on adultery and article 138 on concubinage.

Article 233 of 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 1,103 U.S. dollars fine on conviction.

The petitioner argued that article on defamation is an impediment on press freedoms and should be litigated in civil courts or the media self-regulation body, Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) in case of complaint.

The petitioners had also argued that the defamation law contravenes the fact that everyone is equal before the law.

The Supreme Court however maintained that article 236 remains in the penal code, which stipulates that any person who insults or defames the President of the Republic is liable to seven-year jail term and fines up to 7 million Rwandan Francs.

It also maintained that adultery should remain a criminal offense in the penal code.
The penal code stipulates that any spouse who engages in sexual intercourse outside marriage or deserts their marital home for a period exceeding two months commits an offense and faces one-year imprisonment on conviction.

Court dismissed the petitioners’ argument that marriage affairs are civil matter not supposed to be in the penal code.

The petitioners are happy with the verdict after winning on some contentions though we lost on others, Richard Mugisha told journalists after the ruling.

The Rwanda Journalists Association in a tweet also welcomed the ruling.
The articles concerning defamation of religious symbols and humiliating cartoons of politicians were ruled to contravene Article 38 of the Constitution, it said.

Rwanda’s new penal code came into force in August last year following review of the old penal code by Rwanda Law Reform Commission and subsequent amendment of the law by Parliament.
The old penal code had been in place for over four decades.

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