It emerged this week that the Rwandan parliament has passed the revised penal code that includes the much anticipated reform of media legislation.
Contrary to earlier expectations, the draft represents a reversal of fortunes for media. The offence of criminal defamation remains in the books of law despite earlier pledges to shunt it to civil law.
The penalties for infraction are steeper – increased to between two and three years in the lockers from a maximum time of one year previously. Should the court opt for a fine, the offender can face maximum levy of Rwf5 million.
Media must also watch out for a new offence — insults to or defamation of the president of the republic — which can set one back Rwf7 million or time ranging between five and seven years.
The penalty for criminal defamation is particularly disconcerting given that it is higher than the punishment suffered by a person who commits low value arson.
Deterrence is obviously the purpose here but there is a need to examine the nature of media offences which is essentially social in nature. If that premise is accepted, then remedy, especially the financial penalties can be sought via civil procedure, which incidentally can award the injured even higher amounts.
Most importantly however, the approach taken in the law reinforces an attitude of vengeance. This is at odds with the policy of reconciliatory as opposed to retributive justice that has been the philosophical bedrock of Rwandan justice since 1994.
Also, it would not be in the interests of Rwandan society in general if the new media laws impede media’s ability to hold public officials to account. With such a threat and the wide latitude for interpretation of some of these laws, it is not difficult to surmise that media will feel safer abandoning their watchdog role.
The media are disappointed for good reason. A short regime since 2013, during which the Rwanda Media Commission arbitrated complaints against media practitioners had given hope that a non-adversarial approach to failures by media and self-regulation were viable.
Over the past three years, the media commission resolved 240 complaints, including defamation. That saved precious time in the courts.
That aside, arbitration works better than judicial resolution because in the former case, the offender is convinced of his culpability and offers the most important remedy to an injured party, which is a public acknowledgement of the failure by the offender.
It is a more credible outcome before the public since no coercion is perceived. That is different from criminal resolution, where the case is likely to gain political overtones.
Rwanda must align administration of justice with the overarching theme of national reconciliation.