This week the Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling that deeply entrenched the rule of law. It was an indication that the justice sector had come of age after years of trying to rebuild itself.
In a very a rare occasion, a local lawyer had challenged the recently revised Penal Law that criminalised three core issues; defamation and public humiliation of senior public officials, defamation of religious leaders and rituals, and adultery.
The female-dominated Supreme Court bench threw out the petition that sought to decriminalise adultery arguing that the law should protect the sanctity of the family, something that the Rwandan society holds dear.
For a country whose deeply-entrenched relationship with the religion – especially the Catholic Church – goes back since the arrival of the white man, it was a deep blow when religion lost its immunity from defamation. The court ruled that they should not be handled differently from other organisations and had to be held accountable.
The same goes for public officials who had been shielded from humiliation in the current law. The only person who was spared was the person of the President of the Republic because of the high responsibility of the office and the respect it deserves.
However, President Kagame has since weighed in, stating that the law should not be according Head of State special protection. The President’s stand is that all cases of defamation and public humiliation ought to be treated as civil matters, and not criminal offences.
That President Kagame has himself come out to clearly state that no one should be held criminally liable over defamation or public insult – a position that is consistent with his long held views on public accountability, right to information and equality before the law – speaks volumes, and it is our hope that this restriction will be lifted too.
This does not mean that defamation is not an offence, it is but it is tried as a civil case and does not involve incarceration. So in some sense, the only people who felt a huge weight lifted off their shoulders were members of the media.
All in all, it was a great day for freedom of expression and as Chief Justice said in his ruling: “Freedom of expression is key to holding those in leadership to account and this is a major tenet of any democratic dispensation. Freedom should be enjoyed without any limitations”.