If criticising leaders is criminalised, forget holding government to account

Clearly, singling out government officials seems aimed at shielding them from public scrutiny.

If criticising or scrutinising the conduct of public officials is criminalised, it will be difficult to fight corruption since the public and the media will stop commenting on public officials. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGAH | NMG 

IN SUMMARY

  • “After a second look at the revised penal code, now under scrutiny in the Political Affairs and Gender Committee, I can report that article 254 is even more problematic.”

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago advocating for decriminalising defamation under articles 169 and 257 (on insulting the president) in the revised penal code, I hadn’t realised that these aren’t the only provisions that undermine freedom of expression or the media’s capacity to hold leaders accountable.

After a second look at the revised penal code, now under scrutiny in the Political Affairs and Gender Committee of parliament, I can report that article 254 is even more problematic.

In part, the article reads:
“Any person who, verbally, by gestures or threats, in writings or cartoons, humiliates a Member of Parliament when exercising his/her mandate, a member of the Cabinet, security officers or any other person in charge of a public service performing, or in the exercise of his/her duties, commits an offence.”

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It then adds: “When convicted by a court, he/she is liable to a term of imprisonment of not less than one year but less than two years, with a fine of not less than Rwf500,000 ($595) but not exceeding Rwf1,000,000 ($1,190) or one of these penalties.”

The article concludes: “If contempt takes place during a session of the parliament or if it is directed to any of the top ranking authorities, the penalties under Paragraph One of this Article shall be doubled.”

"Humiliation"

On the surface, this provision appears innocent; for, ordinarily, no one should be humiliated; but it’s problematic on many levels.

While it’s not clear what to “humiliate” means in this case, if adopted as is written, this provision will negatively affect journalism and its application in the country.

It will mean, for example that if a minister does something unbecoming, say, uses foul language in parliament and is asked to apologise as sometimes happens, the media can’t report about it or produce a cartoon to that effect!

Or, if ministers or MPs are caught on camera asleep, say during a public function, one can’t reproduce the scene say, in words or drawing!

Or, it will mean that if a minister is put to task say by parliament to explain how he or she used ministerial resources, it would be illegal for the media to publish a cartoon depicting the drama. Seriously!

If we accept that everyone has a right not to be humiliated, why does this article only single out only government officials like ministers or MPs for protection?

Why, for example, doesn’t the article include bishops, pastors, teachers, business executives, editors, journalists, and so on?

Public scrutiny

Clearly, singling out government officials seems aimed at shielding them from public scrutiny.

Yet, of course public officials — despite being some of the most powerful people in society — deserve legal protection. However, they need a higher level of scrutiny especially because they are servants of the people and manage public funds and resources.

In other words, it’s not clear what higher interest is being protected in this provision. Aren’t public officials, who are paid from taxpayers’ money supposed to accept scrutiny from their employers who are ordinary citizens?

Holding leaders accountable should be a higher national interest than protecting individual rights to a good reputation.

What would be the essence of freedom of expression as protected under the 2003 Constitution if it’s not to protect uncomfortable comments?

The country is known for its intolerance against corruption. If criticising or scrutinising the conduct of public officials is criminalised, it will be difficult to fight corruption since the public and the media will stop commenting on public officials.

If that happens, it will mean that holding public officials accountable by the media or exposing some of their failings as ordinary citizens have been doing whenever visited by the president will stop for fear of imprisonment.

In broad terms, however, beyond a desire to protect public officials, these provisions tell us more about the kind of society their authors believe we should have.

As is clear, authors of these articles seem to believe that we should be a society where leaders can’t be questioned or criticised by fellow citizens or the media!

That’s the Rwanda of yesteryears; it’s not what the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front stands for.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: ckayumba@yahoo.com; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website:www.mgcconsult.com

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