Rwandan journalists could face seven years in jail or a fine of Rwf7 million ($8,353) under the penal code that has been approved for debate by parliament.
The development, seen as a reversal of the fortunes for media practitioners that had expected decriminalisation of defamation under an ongoing review of the penal code, came as part of a new penal code approved for debate by the Lower House last week.
The Bill which increases the penalties for criminal defamation, also introduces a new offence, “insults or defamation against the President of the Republic,” which separately attracts five to seven years in prison and fines ranging between Rwf5 million ($ 5800) and Rwf7 million ($8200).
The penalty for criminal defamation has been doubled to two to three years imprisonment, from six months to one year under the current law. This is a heavier punishment than that for arson which attracts only two years in jail.
The minimum fines for defamation have also been tripled from Rwf1 million ($1,193) to Rwf3 million ($3,579), while the maximum fines were retained at Rwf5 million ($5,966). It however halves the punishment for defamation of religious ceremonies with imprisonment of three months from six months previously.
The media fraternity see the refusal to decriminalise defamation as a sign of hostility against media by the state.
“There is a public commitment by the government, which is a written formal commitment under the universal periodic review that press offences will be decriminalised and handled as civil offences,” reacted Gonza Muganwa, the Executive Secretary of Rwanda Journalists Association.
“We strongly condemn this hostility to media. It contradicts government policy and we do not understand whether the minister of justice, who is on record for supporting media self-regulation, is on the same page with the State Minister for Constitutional and Legal affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, who has been at the helm of overseeing the changes to the penal code,” he added.
Mr Uwizeyimana declined to comment while Minister Minister for Justice Johnston Busingye was not available by press time.
Observers say that retaining defamation in the penal code further undermines the work of the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a body established in 2013 to oversee media self-regulation and promoting responsible journalism.
RMC has to date arbitrated 240 journalism disputes, including defamation — cases that would have otherwise ended up in court as criminal cases.
Instead of being arrested, offending journalists have been ordered to retract the offending articles, write apologies to the victims, and even suffered suspension and even fines.
The executive secretary of RMC, Emmanuel Mugisha said that whereas he agrees with the principle of responsible journalism, he was opposed to arresting journalists for what should be a civil offence.
“RMC is a model. It is not a coincidence that there have been fewer cases of journalists being arrested and charged with defamation since the establishment of RMC. I believe that defamation should be handled as a civil and ethical issue,” he said.