After spirited efforts by media practitioners to convince lawmakers to decriminalise defamation hit a snag, they are still exploring all options to have the clause removed from the amended penal code.
While reviewing the draft penal code, members from both Upper and Lower Chambers of Parliament categorised journalists as ordinary people who don’t deserve special treatment.
“We lost the first petition before parliament but we have not lost hope. There are still other channels we intend to use to continue our plea,” said the president of Rwanda Journalists Association, Gaspard Safari.
He added that, although the legislators turned down the practitioners’ proposal to decriminalise defamation, the Executive branch still offers hope.
“We have two media events taking place this month where this issue is top on the agenda; we are using all ways possible. If need be, we will petition the Head of State,” he said.
Previously, journalists had indicated their intention to have defamation maintained as an offence, which could only attract fines in monetary terms, instead of prison sentences.
In the proposal forwarded to the Senate, journalists recommended that, prison terms be repealed from Articles 172, 173, 287 and 289 of the law.
In the circumstance of a media practitioner being accused of defamation, the affected person should be able to prove that there was falsity and intentional malice, the proposal stated.
They argued that maintaining the punitive measures in the penal code would seriously jeopardise investigative journalism and the fight against corruption and other social vices, which is the media’s prime role.
Laurent Nkongori, a lawyer, noted that it was rare to prove beyond doubt in courts that a journalist intended to defame someone.
“I believe in independence of the judiciary, but when cases of media defamation arise in court, there are elements that have to be looked at, including; material evidence, the moral or intention and the legal elements,” he argued.
He added that in most cases, proving the moral intention is complicated, hence the move by most African countries to decriminalise defamation.
Nkongori however pointed an accusing finger at media practitioners for not doing enough lobbying to have the clause revised.
“Protection of journalists is in the interest of the general public, not the practicing journalist. We cannot forget the fact that journalists are exposed to more risks of unintended defamation than a normal citizen,” said Nkongori.
According to analysts, decriminalising defamation is not meant 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 houses.