When a group of media representatives met with members of a Senatorial select committee currently reviewing the Penal Code, Tuesday, last week, the Honourable members of the Upper Chamber of Parliament outrightly rejected the request to decriminalize defamation.
From the start, it was clear some of the committee members were unwilling to listen to any explanation as to why defamation (libel and slander) should be a civil and not a criminal violation.
The session had been organised following a petition to the committee by the Rwanda Journalists Association. The body called for the amendment of several provisions in the draft Penal Code, under which a defamation offence attracts either a prison sentence or a fine or both.
Media practitioners prefer a clause whereby the aggrieved party will drag the suspected offender to court and the culprit will be required to pay a fine on conviction. Currently, such a media offence is treated as a criminal case, meaning that the state/prosecution can sue a journalist suspected of defaming anyone, with the suspect facing a jail term on conviction.
Although the Chairperson of the Select Committee, Marie Mukantabana, had asked the media team to present their case and to try to convince the committee members, some senators did not, for a second, hesitate to dismiss any argument advanced by the media team.
They made it categorically clear that they were opposed to what they deemed a ‘special treatment’ for a section of the society “contrary to Article 16 of the Constitution which calls for equal treatment of all citizens. Indeed the Article states: “All citizens shall be equal in the eyes of the law, without any discrimination, especially in respect to race, color, origin, ethnic background, clan, sex, opinion, religion, or social status.”
However, for one to fully appreciate the need to decriminalize defamation, you must take into account the following: That the media do not serve themselves, but the general public; the nation is the ultimate beneficiary of a professional media; a vibrant media is number 1 partner of MPs, who oversee government operations on behalf of the electorate; and that, any improvement in the country’s media landscape would be in the best interest of the people, not ‘this small section’ of the broader Rwandan public.
From the debate, it also became clear that many members of the Senatorial committee had no trust in our media. Some argued that journalists had ‘politically killed’ many people by interfering in their private lives. They had a point. Sections of our media have previously overstepped their boundaries, and strayed from their cardinal responsibilities of informing, educating and entertaining the people. Several newspapers took the gutter journalism path, and, by so doing, worked against the very aspirations of the entire sector.
However, it would be wrong for our lawmakers to construct such a sensitive legal tool, as a Penal Code, based on few wrongs. The profession has not been devoid of well-intentioned and professional men and women, who should inspire the formulation of a friendly legal instrument.
It is also wrong for our Senators to deliberately enact a law that is prone to immediate amendment, an impression I got when one Senator indifferently suggested that the proponents of the ‘decriminalization campaign’ should wait for their turn to become lawmakers and decriminalize defamation.
It is a basic fact that journalists are more prone to defamation than anyone else. Because of the nature of their profession, they can’t help but write and talk about other people. And a good number of them do it in good faith. The minimum they need, therefore, is an enabling environment to do a good job.
Decriminalizing defamation is not to condone media offences. Already, a heavy fine against a journalist/media house guilty of defamation is deterrent enough; experience elsewhere shows that such fines have resulted in insolvency of some media organs.
In addition, a journalist can be jailed for committing other crimes such as promoting divisionism and inciting violence. This happens in many countries, which have already decriminalized libel and slander.
Last but not least, by enacting friendlier media laws, we will have dealt a huge blow to critics who have always – and unfairly – attacked Rwanda based on such legal provisions. But, above all, we need to do it for our own good. Let’s not wait until everyone around us has done it; let’s take the lead as a progressive nation.
The author is a training editor with The New Times and 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association.