Criminal Libel in Rwanda

27th April 2019

President Kagame has said that he wants the judiciary to put an end to criminal libel in Rwanda. The Supreme Court has already invalidated articles in the penal law criminalising defamation of national leaders and persons in charge of public service but has said that the President is still covered by the old provisions. However, the President now says the protection from criminal prosecution should apply to everyone – even those who criticize the President himself.

His comments on Thursday 25th April 2019, continue a trend which began as long ago as 2010, when the government set out to reform the media sector and improve the environment for Rwandan journalists.

In 2010, the Rwandan Cabinet published a new media policy, after a process supported by GMT Media Ltd. It said:

“The policy position of the Government of Rwanda (GoR) on the media is threefold.

  1. Guarantee media freedom in action as is guaranteed in the 2003 National Constitution;
  2. The government does not regulate journalistic content; this done by journalists themselves.
  3. Committed to strengthening the capacity of the media sector as a whole.”

The policy launched a process which passed six new laws related to media over the next five years. It led directly to the abolition of The Media High Council and the Ministry of Information. New legislation also underpinned a revised form of media regulation which separated the regulation of content from broadcast spectrum. A self-regulatory body was created which was intended to allow journalists control over content, while the broadcast spectrum was handed to the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA). An Access to Information Act was passed to underpin the right of journalists to obtain information from government officials. At the same time a law was passed which promised to turn the State Broadcaster in to a Public Broadcaster with an independent board – a law that has not been fully implemented. However, it did encourage the rise of independent producers in Rwanda and even enabled Rwanda TV to launch the first ever independently produced news programme on state TV.

The threat of criminal libel places a heavy hand on journalists in many countries around the world. It discourages the kind of news coverage which is essential if politicians are to be held to account for their actions. It also hinders honest politicians’ efforts to tackle corruption and mismanagement. In calling for the abolition of criminal libel, President Kagame is striking a better balance between the desire to protect an individual’s right to privacy and the need to protect the right to publish in the public interest. Ghana repealed criminal libel in 2001 and the UK followed suit in 2010. Sierra Leone is currently considering abolishing it. Will Rwanda be the next to complete the task? The President thinks it should. 

Jerry Timmins, Managing Director GMT Media Ltd