Rwanda: Analysis of the Penal Code

In June 2018, ARTICLE 19 reviewed the Penal Code of Rwanda (Penal Code), for its compliance with international standards on freedom of expression. The Penal Code was adopted by the Parliament of Rwanda on 28 June 2018 after being tabled in October 2017, and is awaiting ascension by President Paul Kagame.

ARTICLE 19 has a number of concerns with the Penal Code; this analysis does not detail all of ARTICLE 19’s concerns; rather, it focuses only on the more important of these concerns and issues relevant to our mandate. We also note that the proposed changes to the Penal Code need to be considered in the broader contexts of restriction of freedom of expression in the country. Under the Presidency of Kagame, discussion of the 1994 genocide is severely restricted, meaning that genuine truth and reconciliation is limited. Media outlets are subject to closures and journalists have routinely been arrested for reporting critically. The silencing of both the media and political opposition is enabled by the existing broad provisions of the Penal Code, which can and are used to target any expression the government doesn’t like.

ARTICLE 19 recognises that the horrific atrocities which took place during the 1994 genocide are undoubtedly a core contextual background to the country’s approach to tackling discrimination and intolerance, and create a unique and challenging context to tackle issues of ‘hate speech’ and division. Nonetheless, instead of making genuine efforts to tackle these issues, the government has used excessively broad and repressive criminal laws to silence genuine discussion of the genocide, which, instead of targeting discrimination, is likely to silence victims of the genocide and discrimination. Instead of seeking to build stability and an open democracy through the embedding of human rights standards in the country’s laws and policies, the government has reverted to silencing criticism and violating the right to free speech.

ARTICLE 19 has previously conducted reviews of both the former Penal Code and the Genocide Ideology Law, which the latest draft replaces. In October 2013, the Parliament adopted a revised version of the Genocide Ideology Law, which while making some amendments to bring it closer to international standards, retained its worryingly extensive restrictions on freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that sections of the latest version of the Penal Code continue to criminalise the vaguely defined concept of Genocide Ideology and violate international standards on freedom of expression, as well as restricting genuine debate on the country’s past.

In ARTICLE 19’s analysis of the former Penal Code, we found that the legislation was marked by broad and vaguely defined provisions that enabled abuse to silence critical and dissenting voices. The latest version of the Penal Code, despite seeking to consolidate the criminal legal framework, has retained numerous broad and vague provisions, which both duplicate existing provisions in their purpose and extend well beyond the scope of legitimate restrictions on expression under international standards Rwanda is bound by.

We strongly urge the President not to sign the law in its current form, as it violates Rwanda’s international human rights obligations and will serve to restrict the space for important public debate. We recommend that the Rwandan government reviews the text of Penal Code and brings it into full compliant with international human rights standards. We stand ready to assist the government in this process.

Summary of recommendations:

  • The Penal Code should be amended to ensure its jurisdictional limits are in accordance with international law;
  • Restrictions on ‘direct and indirect incitement to genocide’ must be brought into line with international criminal law, by narrowing the provision to ‘direct and public incitement to genocide,’ as reflected in the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda;
  • The concept of genocide ideology must finally be removed from Rwandan criminal law, as well as crimes of justifying or denying genocide. Not only are the potential goals of these provisions already covered by incitement provisions in the law, which should criminalize hateful speech which meets the threshold of international standards, but positive measures to promote tolerance, justice and understanding in the wake of the atrocities of 1994, would be a much more effective means to tackle issues of discrimination and divisions in society;
  • Incitement provisions must be brought into line with Article 20(2) of the ICCPR to ensure all restrictions on speech fully meet international standards, while sectarianism provisions should be removed in their entirety as an unnecessarily broad duplication of discrimination provisions;
  • Article 152 which limits access to information on reproductive health and rights should be repealed in its entirety as an unjustifiable restriction on the right of access to information;
  • All articles criminalising defamation should be struck in their entirety, and replaced with appropriate civil remedies;
  • Provisions protecting religious objects and ceremonies should be repealed entirely, as sufficient protections for incitement to discrimination on religious grounds exist elsewhere;
  • Provisions on sharing personal data should be amended to ensure they apply only to specifically defined personal information, and that the harm to dignity or privacy is more clearly defined in the law;
  • Offences related to the disclosure of state secrets should be amended to include a defence of public interest, to better protect whistle-blowers. They should also revise broadly worded concepts such as ‘intent to hurt the interests’ of Rwanda, to bring the provisions into line with international standards;
  • Article criminalising the spread of ‘false news’ should be repealed in their entirety as an excessive restriction on freedom of expression in violation of international standards, which are clearly open to abuse. The Rwandan government should seek other means to counter the spread of disinformation online and offline, including through the support of effective self-regulatory mechanisms for the media;
  • The government should repeal all provisions criminalising ‘sedition’ related offences;
  • Article 240 of the penal code should be reformed to exclude references to undefined ‘illegal demonstrations,’ and to remove the requirement for authorisations on protests. The law should avoid placing blanket restrictions on the locations of protests.

Read the analysis