Rwanda has introduced a new media law that will see journalists who “insult” the president facing seven-year jail terms.
The media is something that African leaders keep an eye on. They are very wary of it and they will always ensure that they have a tight grip over the media. It is not just confined to Africa, but across the whole world. In the United States we have seen president Donald Trump venting rants at what he calls “fake media.”
It seems as if the media poses an inherent threat to African leaders. In many instances, they frantically promulgate laws that keep the media at bay, laws that keep the media in lane. It is a common phenomenon which African citizens have been accustomed to. To maintain regime survival, possible sources where revolts could emanate from are kept under tight control. This includes the media. The media is a source of many voices, and as usual, some African leaders have no time to tolerate dissenting, independent voices. Hence the only way for them is to employ the law so that a tight leash is kept on the media.
Rwanda is an intriguing case to this end. Paul Kagame, who has been the leader since the halt of the catastrophic and gruesome genocide, is very keen on holding on to power. What is however interesting is that he is the man who has brought peace and stability to Rwanda at a time when this was urgently needed. He has ushered in a new epoch for Rwanda, he has managed to facilitate national healing and he has been an integral part to the present, and enviable development of the East African nation. In doing that, he has amended the Constitutoin to ensure that his term in office is extended. He won this year’s election by an emphatic landslide and for some this is a clear sign that people love him. For others, he is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The latter view may be justified by the new media law Rwanda that could see journalists facing up to seven years in prison for insulting the president or paying a maximum fine of Rwf7 million ($8 353). The development now comes as a new penal code, a devastation to journalists who had hoped for more press freedom since there was another ongoing review of a penal code. The Bill increases the penalties for criminal defamation, also introduces a new offence, “insults or defamation against the President of the Republic,” which separately attracts five to seven years in prison and fines ranging between Rwf5 million ($ 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.
This has not gone down well with the media fraternity, who are viewing this contemptuously as hostility towards the media by the state. Could it mean that as part of Kagame’s plan to remain in power effectively he has to silence critics? It could mean many other things more that this.
“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.
Press freedom is proving to be a thorn in the flesh for many African states. Journalists do not have the freedom they are supposed to have in their duty to providing checks and balances of those in power. The principle of responsible journalism, which the Rwanda Media Commission strongly believes in, is in contradiction to arbitrary arrests of journalists. 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.
This development is to be taken by many as an affront to press freedom, because this is what has prevailed on the continent. Voices are stifled and freedom is suppressed. It is yet to be seen whether genuinely this is to promote responsible journalism or this is just one of those attacks on the media in order to sustain regime survival.