President Paul Kagame has taken issue with the Supreme Court’s decision to grant the Head of State special legal protection from defamation and public insult.
A statement from the Office of the President indicates that Kagame’s position is that defamation should be decriminalised, regardless of who’s involved.
Supreme Court on Wednesday invalidated articles in the penal law criminalising defamation of national leaders and persons in charge of public service.
The judges, led by Chief Justice Sam Rugege, agreed with the petitioners that inclusion of these provisions in the new penal law contravened the constitution, which provides for absolute freedom of expression and press freedoms, as well as international conventions which Rwanda is party to.
As a result, such cases shall be handled through civil litigations, the court ruled.
However, the judges made an exception: when the victim is the Head of State.
That means that public insult or defamation against the person of the President remains a criminal offence under the new penal law which came into force in August last year.
The offence attracts a maximum sentence of seven years on conviction.
The court was delivering the much-awaited ruling on a constitutional challenge by Richard Mugisha, a Kigali-based lawyer, who argued that the provisions were inconsistent with the spirit behind the otherwise progressive legal regime of the country.
Mugisha was represented by lawyers Florida Kabasinga, the Managing Partner of Certa Law, and Moise Nkundabarashi, of Trust Law Chambers.
However, a statement from the Office of the President issued on Thursday said that, while President Kagame was respectful of the independence of the Judiciary, he was not satisfied with the Supreme Court’s decision to give the Head of State preferential treatment in relation to the provisions on public insult and defamation.
“The President of the Republic respects the independence of the judiciary and the recent Supreme Court decision to decriminalise the offences related to humiliation of public officials…
“The President, however, takes issue with the decision to retain as criminal offences, insults or defamation against the Head of State, who is also a public official,” reads part of the statement.
It adds: “His position has always been that this should be a civil, not a criminal matter”.
The Head of State trusts that debate would continue on this important matter, the statement says.
Speaking to The New Times on behalf of her client, Kabasinga commended the President for his stand.
“I respect court decisions but was very disappointed with the decision to grant discriminatory treatment to the President and I am happy that President Kagame shares the same view," she said.
Kabasinga added: "Discriminatory treatment (of public officials) is the reason why my client went to court in the first place.
“As a lawyer, I respect court decisions, especially those of our Supreme Court. However, I was very disappointed in the recent decision on account of the discriminatory treatment granted to the president. That discriminatory treatment is the reason why my client went to court.
“Legally, I also find that the Supreme Court contradicted itself in its ruling when it decided that other categories of leaders are not special enough to warrant laws protecting them. When it came to the president, the reasoning was the opposite."
Reacting to the statement from the Office of the President, Justice Minister and Attorney General Johnston Busingye said that the President’s position on the issue is no surprise, given his track record and stand on transparency, accountability and probity of public officials.
"It is not surprising that he would clarify his personal position on the issue after the Supreme Court decided that the offences contravene the constitution except in regard to the Head of State," Busingye said.
Asked about the way forward, he said that this is an ongoing debate.
“Government will engage with all stakeholders and take appropriate action, in compliance with the laws," he said.