As the review of the Rwandan Penal Code continues, voices and debate continue especially on articles concerning defamation. Two contrasting views are on the table; either to criminalise or to decriminalise “defamation”.
I am compelled to express my views, not only as a human being, but especially as a Rwandan, because this penal code is being drafted for Rwandans.
To criminalise or not to criminalise defamation, that is the problem. Both sides are apparently far from reaching a common ground, though the Rwandan Constitution provides for consensus in decision making.
Some believe that decriminalising defamation would be in national interest as it would pave the way for freedom of expression, especially for the media.
In my view, instead of debating on whether or not to decriminalise defamation, people should understand first what defamation is and its benefits and disadvantages to the society.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “defamation” as the act of damaging somebody’s reputation by saying or writing bad or false things about them.
The Legal Dictionary defines “defamation” as any intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person’s reputation; decreases the respect, regard or confidence in which a person is held.
The key words here are; intention, false and, harm or damage.
Basing on the above definitions, damaging intentionally one’s reputation; would it be a criminal or a civil case?
The relevance of any country is hinged on its culture, values and taboos. In addition to this, there are people, territory and institutions. All these should be equally protected.
The resilience and prosperity of Rwanda have been, over centuries and decades, built on the culture and values of the society. Rwanda has one culture with shared values, and defamation is a taboo.
Though defamation has always been a “don’t” (Kirazira), truth was always told and wrongdoing was denounced. The value should be on how to tell the truth without defamation.
Today, should defamation be civilised in Rwanda in the name of democracy and freedom of expression? If so, is that the Rwanda we want for us and for the posterity? Would this really be of national interest?
Honestly, what else is the Rwandan society going to gain from decriminalisation of defamation if not liberation of abusive language, dehumanising the people and the shrinking of national values and promotion of irresponsible media?
Secondly, since the media is a public good meant for immediate consumption, people should look also at the side effects of defamation in the media, which would kill the society.
The general principle should be understood as thus; every human being deserves respect and protection from defamation, and the offender should be dealt with as such, without discrimination.
And this does not restrict media from scrutinising public figures or government officials for the purpose of transparency and accountability.
Where I find a problem is in the protection of public figures from being scrutinised and held accountable. If that was the case, there would be a step backward with regard to transparency and accountability.
Where the law exclusively shields public officials from any form of scrutiny, I foresee a scenario where everyone would fight to occupy such positions.
Media practitioners should understand that; before being journalists, they are Rwandans. The country has its culture, traditions and values which should be protected. Defamation has never been a value in Rwanda.
It is good to note that the self-regulatory body – the Rwanda Media Commission – has tried to solve amicably all defamation-related complaints in the recent years.
However, this mechanism is operating under the assumption of “consensus” without any of the instruments of coercion. As a consequence, some practitioners have defied its decisions.
Criminalising defamation is a matter of survival in national interest. The law should first aim at prevention and not reaction.
Defamation is against human dignity which is a critical value for prosperity. It should be treated as a crime for common interest, and this should apply equally for every human being.
None can be happy with being abused in the media, including journalists.
The author is a political analyst and Member of the Pan-African Movement, Rwanda Chapter
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.