By Clement Uwiringiyimana
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Rwanda's supreme court on Wednesday repealed a law that banned the publication of political cartoons, while upholding another that punishes insulting or defaming the president with at least five years in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 his winning international praise for steering the country through a period of rapid economic recovery since the 1994 genocide.
Chief justice Sam Rugege said article 233, which bans the humiliation of national authorities and persons in charge of public service, ran counter to freedom of expression embedded in the constitution.
"The court rules that 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 remains 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 that are in the media legislation themselves that will protect the office of the president and any other leaders," he told reporters after the ruling.
Rwanda Journalists Association executive secretary Gonzaga Muganwa told Reuters after the ruling that the scrapping of the law banning cartoons was a big step forward.
"We still believe the president is an elected official who should be scrutinized. On that part we are particularly not happy," he said.
Rwanda ranked 155th out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released last week, Reporters without Borders (RSF) said.
"The number of abuses registered by RSF has fallen in recent years, but censorship is ubiquitous and self-censorship is widely used to avoid running afoul of the regime," it said.
(Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Angus MacSwan)