The Rwanda Supreme Court repealed a law banning publication of political cartoons, while upholding another punishing, insulting or defaming the president with at least five years in prison.
Critics accuse long-ruling Rwandan president Paul Kagame of muzzling the press and dissenting voices, despite him winning international praise for steering the country through rapid economic recovery since the 1994 genocide.
Chief justice Sam Rugege said article 233, which bans humiliation of national authorities and persons in charge of public service, ran counter to freedom of expression embedded in the constitution.
“The court rules the article that punishes humiliating officials is against the freedom of speech as one might fear to express themselves for fear of being prosecuted,” Rugege said.
“Insulting the president is harming the public order.”
Freedom of expression is a thorny issue in Rwanda, where hate speech spread by Radio RTLM helped stir up ethnic tensions that lead to the genocide of more than 800,000 people.
Many journalists and opposition politicians believe the level of censorship in modern Rwanda goes too far.
“Don’t you run a risk where you are actually bordering on censorship of the media?” said Richard Mugisha, the lawyer who filed the case on the behalf of the Rwandan Journalists Association.
“There are real remedies in media legislation to protect the office of the president and other leaders,” he told reporters after the ruling.
Rwanda Journalists Association executive secretary Gonzaga Muganwa told Reuters scrapping the law banning cartoons was a big step forward.
“We still believe the president is an elected official who should be scrutinised. On that part we are not happy,” he said.
Rwanda ranked 155th out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders (RSF) said.
“The number of abuses registered by RSF fell in recent years, but censorship is ubiquitous and self-censorship is widely used to avoid running foul of the regime,” it said.