A Rwandan lawyer has moved to court seeking repeal of provisions of the new penal code that criminalise “insulting the president” as well as cartoons and drawings that humiliate public officials.
Richard Mugisha, a seasoned lawyer, on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that the penal code, published in October, is unconstitutional and contravened international charters that protect freedom of expression.
“Such provisions undermine the spirit of the country’s constitution and serve to undermine to work of journalists in holding government authorities accountable,” Mr Mugisha told the court.
The penal code, though, had been hailed for decriminalising defamation but proved controversial with media fraternity saying it aimed to clamp down on free speech.
Mr Mugisha wants article 233 repealed — the article prohibits writings or cartoons that humiliate Members of Parliament, ministers, other government authorities and security agencies.
An individual who draws such a cartoon risks imprisonment of up to two years, and a fine of up to Rwf1 million (about $1100).
He also wants article 236 revoked, which states, that any person who insults the President of the Republic will be liable to up to seven years in jail and a fine up to Rwf7 million ($7,800).
The Trust Law Chambers co-founder, further argued that since the constitution guaranteed equal protection, government officials were no exception.
“The laws should protect every Rwandan regardless of what job they do. These articles will censor media from using text, drawings of videos of officials yet it is part of their work,” he challenged.
“Freedom of press and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the constitution. It is my prayer that the court reviews these articles in the penal code because they conflict with the supreme law.”
Mr Mugisha also petitioned the court to invalidate articles that criminalise adultery and family desertion, saying that it interfered with family affairs.
“Criminalising these acts only serves to break families even more apart than protect them as the constitution calls, and that’s why we appeal that they be revised,” he added.
State Attorney Specioze Kabibi, however, told the court that Mr Mugisha’s remarks were unsubstantiated as there was no proof that the media had been muzzled by the punishment guidelines.
“Mr Mugisha is neither a practicing journalist nor an individual that has been directly affected by those provisions in the penal code. The fact that he is a lawyer does not make it special; he should have gone through the bar association to make a petition,” Ms Kabibi disputed.
Chief Justice Sam Rujeje, who presided over the case, said that the petition will be reviewed and arguments taken into consideration adding that the outcome could set a precedent.
He will rule on the matter on January 11, 2019.