Rwanda criminalises ‘humiliating’ cartoons and writing

By on 04/10/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Rwanda president Paul Kagame, pictured here at an event held to celebrate World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, has criminalised cartoons or writing that ‘humiliates’ officials (Image courtesy: ITU/ I.Wood/Flickr).

Cartoons and writing that “humiliate” civil servants or members of parliament are now a criminal offence in Rwanda, after the government brought in new legislation.

Those found guilty of the new offence face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $1150. The penalty doubles if the subject of the cartoon or writing is a member of parliament or a top-ranking official, according to an article in the Washington Post.

Editing images or statements “in bad faith” without stating it wasn’t the original version could also attract a fine of up to two million francs ($2300) and a year-long prison sentence.

It is unclear whether the law affects people who post such writings on social media, the Washington Post noted.

Criminalising criticism

“Any person who, verbally, by gestures or threats, in writings or cartoons, humiliates a member of parliament when exercising his/her mandate, a member of the Cabinet, security officers or any other person in charge of a public service in the performance or in connection with the performance of his/her duties, commits an offence,” the law states.

The Rwanda Journalists Association’s (ARJ) executive secretary, Gonza Muganwa, said the group would seek legal interpretations and advise members accordingly.

“This law is a classic case of people legislating to protect themselves rather than looking out for the interests of the public.

“In the trade of journalism, cartoons are by nature humorous and therefore easy for leaders to perceive them negatively or as humiliating even when it’s not,” Muganwa told The Associated Press.

Defaming Rwanda’s head of state is already illegal, bringing five to seven years in prison and a $8,140 fine, the article said.

But whilst acting to protect public servants, Rwanda has also decriminalised general defamation and press offences with another law passed at the end of September. The ARJ said that this was a very important step in expanding freedom of the press and free expression in general.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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