W(h)ither free expression in post-genocide Rwanda?

Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, speaks at the official commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in that country. UN Photo/Government of Rwanda
Tuesday, May 20, 2014

By Francine Navarro

April 7, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the darkest chapter in Rwanda’s recent history. In 1994, volatile ethnic tensions between the country’s minority Tutsi and majority Hutu populations (fomented while Rwanda was under Belgian colonial rule) erupted into genocide. Tutsis and moderate Hutus were the main targets of a campaign of mass slaughter, torture, and sexual violence perpetrated primarily by the Interahamwe, an extremist Hutu paramilitary group. Civilians, state officials, and the Rwandan National Army were also guilty of condoning and committing acts of genocide in the name of “Hutu Power.” Collectively, the génocidaires killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate or dissident Hutus in a mere 100 days. The genocide officially ceased when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame, gained control of the country in mid-July of 1994.

Now president of Rwanda, Kagame is credited with spearheading his nation’s social and economic rebirth. Rwanda currently boasts the highest percentage of female federal MPs in the world and a 49 per cent increase in its GDP per capita from 1995 ($575) to 2012 ($1,170). Both child and infant mortality rates have decreased, the nation registers a low-to-moderate crime rate, and the country has become an attractive location for foreign investment. Furthermore, the state has taken noteworthy, if at times controversial, steps to bring justice and reconciliation to a population traumatized by genocide.

At the same time, it’s no secret that Kagame and his RPF government keep a suffocating grip on civil liberties. “The RPF regime has systematically intimidated, co-opted, and suppressed civil society,” political science scholar Timothy Longman writes in his contribution to Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence. “The regime tolerates very little public criticism, strictly limiting freedoms of speech, press, and association.”

Institutional threats to free expression in Rwanda
At the national level, the Rwandan government has enacted laws prohibiting “divisionism”, “sectarianism”, and “genocide ideology”—broadly defined offences that purportedly penalize hate speech but are chiefly used to suppress critics of Kagame and the RPF. Journalists and political opponents have been threatened with, censored by, and in some cases convicted of such charges under Rwanda’s 2009 Media Law and a 2008 law against genocide ideology.

  • • Agnes Nkusi Uwimana, editor of Umurabyo newspaper: Found guilty of genocide ideology, divisionism, defamation, and threatening state security, and sentenced to 17 years in prison in February 2011 for writing an article that was critical of government policies and accused Kagame and senior government officials of corruption. The prosecution alleged Uwimana’s article “incited the people against an elected government.”
  • • Victoire Ingabire, opposition leader: Arrested in 2010 for drawing attention to the exclusion of Hutu genocide victims while making a speech at a genocide memorial centre. She was subsequently tried under six charges, including genocide ideology and divisionism, and while the court initially found her guilty of conspiracy and genocide denial, she was later also convicted of “spreading false rumours intended to incite the public to rise up against the state.”

Beyond the courts, the state also exerted control over domestic and foreign journalists through the Media High Council until legal reforms were made in 2013 (see below). In addition to determining who is authorized to work as a journalist in Rwanda, the Media High Council also monopolized the power to issue, suspend, and revoke a media organization’s license to operate in the country. In July 2010, the Media High Council issued six-month suspensions for two independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi, known for viewing the RPF with a critical eye. The ruling was not attributed to any specific articles or practices that amounted to violations of Rwanda’s media laws. Instead, it was justified by vague accusations of “poor conduct” and “highly opinionated” stories that provoke “disorder and a state of fear.” The suspension ultimately prevented both newspapers from covering the 2010 presidential election.

State censorship of media
When discussing free expression in Rwanda, it is difficult to skirt facts about the role Rwandan media played in abetting the 1994 genocide. The domestic media campaign that propagated hate and violence against Tutsis and their allies has been internationally condemned. In December 2008 the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found three senior media officials guilty of genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy, crimes against humanity, extermination and persecution. Among them was the chief editor of a newspaper that published the notorious “Hutu Ten Commandments”, which promoted brutal forms of gender-based violence against female Tutsis.

Echoing the slogan, “Never Again,” the international community has invoked memories of the genocide to prop up calls to prevent and intervene in similar humanitarian catastrophes. Unfortunately, as Longman observes, Kagame and his government also exploit fears of renewed ethnic tensions and violence in Rwanda, “to justify political repression whose real purpose is to consolidate the power of the RPF regime.”

President Kagame often deflects criticisms about the absence of free expression in Rwanda, claiming they overlook his country’s immediate nation-building needs and hold Rwanda to a double standard. According to Kagame’s development scheme, which has been compared to that of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, free expression will come to Rwandans after its economy and people have healed from the catastrophe that befell the nation 20 years ago. “It’s something that people probably have to be patient about,” he says.

Signs of improvement…
Mounting international scrutiny over the absence of free expression in Rwanda forced Kagame’s government to draft amendments to its national media laws, which came into force in March 2013 along with the country’s first access to information act.

Under the new media policy, the Media High Council’s mandate is reduced to “capacity-building”, and its regulatory powers over the standards, conduct, and make-up of the Rwandan media environment have been inherited by the nascent Rwanda Media Commission. Local media is now largely self-regulated by this committee of media professionals, who are elected by their colleagues to represent the interests of journalists and defend press freedom in Rwanda. It is still too early to tell how or whether the Rwanda Media Commission will advance free press and free expression, but it opens up important dialogue about the policy of media self-regulation in Rwanda.

In October 2013, Kagame enacted amendments to the 2008 genocide ideology law. Passed unanimously by parliament and the Senate, the revised law penalizes only intentional and public acts of communicating genocide ideology.

…but physical threats endure
Though encouraging, these legal reforms should not overshadow the government’s continued disregard for free expression of political opponents in and outside Rwanda. Domestic and foreign journalists still face harassment from the state months after the revised media law was enacted, and many continue to flee the country to escape intimidation and threats to their well-being.

Equally alarming is the growing list of assassinations and attempted assassinations linked to Rwanda’s ruling RPF party. When the body of Rwanda’s former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was found in a Johannesburg hotel room on January 1, 2014, reports were quick to speculate on the politically-charged motives behind his death. Karegeya had been living in South Africa since 2007 to escape threats linked to his falling out with Kagame. In 2010, he co-founded an opposition group, the Rwanda National Congress, with a fellow exiled Rwandan dissident. Strangled with a towel and curtain rope, Karegeya was among the many Rwandan dissidents living in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and as far as the United Kingdom who were silenced by a string of hostile attacks allegedly sanctioned by President Kagame’s government.

As these blatant affronts to free expression take place alongside the social and economic gains Rwanda has made over the past 20 years, how should we view the leaders and values which underpin the country’s reconstruction? More importantly, can the nation truly heal without the freedom to discuss its past, present and future?

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In the news



  • A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer
  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
  • Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence edited by Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf (includes “Limitations to Political Reform: The Undemocratic Nature of Transition in Rwanda” by Timothy Longman and “Instrumentalizing Genocide: The RPF’s Campaign against ‘Genocide Ideology’” by Lars Waldorf, both of which were used as resources for this article)

Francine Navarro is a Research and Publications Intern at CJFE.