IN­SIDE ME­DIA FREE­DOM AT RISK DE­SPITE FRIENDLY LAWS

The East African - - NEWS - By IVAN R. MUGISHA The Eastafrican

In Kenya, like other coun­tries in the re­gion, are sev­eral Acts of par­lia­ment that du­pli­cate the roles of dif­fer­ent agen­cies, sti­fling me­dia free­dom.

RWAN­DAN JOUR­NAL­ISTS could face seven years in jail or a fine of Rwf 7 mil­lion ($8,353) un­der a new me­dia law that has been passed by par­lia­ment.

The de­vel­op­ment, seen as a re­ver­sal of the for­tunes for me­dia prac­ti­tion­ers that had ex­pected de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of defama­tion un­der an on­go­ing re­view of the pe­nal code, came as part of a new pe­nal code passed by the Lower House last week.

The Bill which 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.

The me­dia fra­ter­nity see the re­fusal to de­crim­i­nalise defama­tion as a sign of hos­til­ity against me­dia by the state.

“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 sel­f­reg­u­la­tion, 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.

Mr Uwiz­ey­i­mana de­clined to com­ment while Min­is­ter Min­is­ter for Jus­tice John­ston Bus­ingye was not avail­able by press time.

Ob­servers say that re­tain­ing defama­tion in the pe­nal code fur­ther un­der­mines the work of the Rwanda Me­dia Com­mis­sion (RMC), a body es­tab­lished in 2013 to over­see me­dia self-reg­u­la­tion and pro­mot­ing re­spon­si­ble jour­nal­ism.

RMC has to date ar­bi­trated 240 jour­nal­ism dis­putes, in­clud­ing defama­tion — cases that would have oth­er­wise ended up in court as crim­i­nal cases.

In­stead of be­ing ar­rested, of­fend­ing jour­nal­ists have been or­dered to re­tract the of­fend­ing ar­ti­cles, write apolo­gies to the vic­tims, and even suf­fered sus­pen­sion and even fines.

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.

“RMC is a model. It is not a co­in­ci­dence that there have been fewer cases of jour­nal­ists be­ing ar­rested and charged with defama­tion since the es­tab­lish­ment of RMC. I be­lieve that defama­tion should be han­dled as a civil and eth­i­cal is­sue,” he said.

Pic­ture: File

Jour­nal­ists’s meet­ing at the Rwanda Me­dia Com­mis­sion.

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