By The Rwandan Lawyer
While the constitution and laws officially recognize the right of expression, there is realized a hiatus between the theoretical situation and the reality given the various and countless violations of this fundamental right in Rwanda whereby some declarations unpleasant to the regime are automatically turned into crimes and severely punished to several years of imprisonment.
Freedom of expression, including for the press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press “in conditions prescribed by the law,” but the government severely restricted this right. Journalists reported government officials questioned, threatened, and at times arrested journalists who expressed views deemed critical of the government on sensitive topics. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and journalists led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
The Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body, sometimes intervened on journalists’ behalf but was generally viewed as biased towards the government. Journalists reported most positions on the RMC board were filled in close consultation with the government and called into question the board’s independence.
Freedom of Speech
There were no official restrictions on individuals’ right to criticize the government publicly or privately on policy implementation and other issues, but broad interpretation of provisions in the law had a chilling effect on such criticism. The government generally did not tolerate criticism of the presidency and government policy on security, human rights, and other matters deemed sensitive.
Laws prohibiting divisionism, genocide ideology, and genocide denial were broadly applied and discouraged citizens, residents, and visitors to the country from expressing viewpoints that could be construed as promoting societal divisions.
The law prohibits making use of speech, writing, or any other act that divides the populace or may set them against each other or cause civil unrest because of discrimination. Conviction of “instigating divisions” is punishable by five to seven years’ imprisonment and a substantial monetary fine. Authorities applied the laws broadly, including to silence political dissent and to shut down investigative journalism. The law also prohibits spreading “false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause public disaffection against the government,” for which conviction is punishable by seven to 10 years’ imprisonment. The government generally investigated individuals accused of threatening or harming genocide survivors and witnesses or of espousing genocide ideology.
A revised law enacted in 2018 incorporated international definitions for genocide and outlined the scope of what constitutes “genocide ideology” and related offenses. Specifically, the law provides that any person convicted of denying, minimizing, or justifying the 1994 genocide is liable to a prison term of five to seven years and a substantial monetary fine. Authorities applied the statute broadly, and there were numerous reports of its use to silence persons critical of government policy.
The RIB and RNP reported opening 55 new investigations related to genocide ideology statutes as of May, although none had resulted in arrests as of September 27.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media
Vendors sold newspapers published in English, French, and Kinyarwanda. According to the RMC, there were 36 print media outlets registered with the government, although many of these did not publish regularly. Sporadically published independent newspapers-maintained positions in support of, or critical of, the government, but a lack of advertisement revenue and funds remained serious hurdles to continuing operations. Most independent newspapers opted not to publish print editions and released their stories online instead. There were 35 radio stations (six government-owned community radio stations and 29 independent radio stations) and more than 13 television stations, according to the RMC. Independent media reported a difficult operating environment and highlighted the reluctance of the business community to advertise on radio stations that might be critical of the government.
Media professionals reported government officials used ambiguities in laws governing media to influence reporting and used threats and intimidation to prevent journalists from reporting information deemed sensitive or critical of the government. The law regulating media provides journalists the freedom to investigate, express opinions, and “seek, receive, give, and broadcast information and ideas through any media.” The law explicitly prohibits censorship of information, but censorship occurred. The laws restrict these freedoms if journalists “jeopardize the general public order and good morals, an individual’s right to honor and reputation in the public eye and to the right to inviolability of a person’s private life and family.” By law authorities may seize journalists’ material and information if a “media offense” occurs but only under a court order. Courts may compel journalists to reveal confidential sources in the event of an investigation or criminal proceeding. Persons wanting to start a media outlet must apply with the “competent public organ.” All media rights and prohibitions apply to persons writing for websites.
Violence and Harassment
Media professionals reported the government continued to use threats of arrests and physical violence to silence media outlets and journalists. Journalist Jean Bosco Kabakura remained outside the country after fleeing in 2018 because of threats related to his publication of an article examining the roles of police, military, and civilian authorities in the shooting of refugees from the Kiziba refugee camp earlier in 2018. Several other journalists who fled in prior years remained outside the country. Failure to investigate or prosecute threats against journalists resulted in self-censorship.
In April the government enforced a general lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. During the lockdown numerous bloggers and journalists, including some who used YouTube channels to distribute their work, were arrested and detained. These journalists were largely known to be critics of government policies and practices. Dieudonne Niyonsenga (also known as Hassan Cyuma), owner of the YouTube channel Ishema TV, and his employee Fidele Komezusenge were arrested for violating lockdown measures, remanded for 30 days, and denied bail. Komezusenge was later released, but Niyonsenga remained in prison as of October 1. HRW considered the detention of Hassan Cyuma and several other bloggers working for outlets that reported on an incident of several rapes perpetrated by a group of RDF soldiers during the COVID-19 lockdown and the impact of the COVID-19 directives on vulnerable populations to be retaliatory. In April the RMC stated unaccredited individuals conducting interviews and posting them on personal YouTube channels did not qualify as journalists and were not permitted to move about freely to conduct interviews during the lockdown.
Censorship or Content Restrictions
The law allows the government to restrict access to some government documents and information, including information on individual privacy and information or statements deemed to constitute defamation. HRW reported harassment, suspicious disappearances, and the fear of prosecution pushed many journalists to engage in self-censorship. Reporters Without Borders continued to report that censorship remained ubiquitous, and self-censorship was widely used to avoid running afoul of the regime. Reporters Without Borders also reported that foreign journalists were often unable to obtain the visas and accreditation needed to report in Rwanda.
Radio stations broadcast some criticism of government policies, including on popular citizen call-in shows; however, criticism tended to focus on provincial leaders and local implementation of policies rather than on the president or ruling party leadership. Some radio stations, including Radio 1, Radio Isango Star, Radio 10, and Radio Salus, had regular call-in shows that featured discussion of government programs or policies. For example, Radio Flash and Radio Isango Star hosted several debates in which participants criticized government policies on human rights and social issues.
In April 2019 the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional provisions of the law that made it illegal to use words, gestures, writings, or cartoons to humiliate members of parliament, members of the cabinet, security officers, or any other public servant. The court upheld a provision stating that conviction of insulting or defaming the president is punishable by five to seven years’ imprisonment and a substantial monetary fine. In response the Office of the President issued a statement taking issue with the court’s decision to uphold that provision and called for continued debate of the issue, explaining that the president believed this should be a civil matter, not a criminal matter. Parliament subsequently revised the law in August 2019 to decriminalize such speech, to include when related to the president. Defamation of foreign and international officials and dignitaries remains illegal under the law, with sentences if convicted of three to five years’ imprisonment. The penal code does not contain provisions criminalizing public defamation and public insult in general.
Under media laws, journalists must refrain from reporting items that violate “confidentiality in the national security and national integrity” and “confidentiality of judicial proceedings, parliamentary sessions, and cabinet deliberations in camera.” Authorities used these laws to intimidate critics of the government and journalists covering politically sensitive topics and matters under government investigation.
The law includes the right of all citizens to “receive, disseminate, or send information through the internet,” including the right to start and maintain a website. All provisions of media law apply to web-based publications. The government restricts the types of online content that users can access, particularly content that strays from the government’s official line, and continued to block websites. The government continued to monitor email and internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views online, including by email and social media, but were subject to monitoring. In May 2019 the minister of information and communications technology and innovation announced the government planned to impose regulations on social media content to combat misinformation and protect citizens. The government did not announce any further details.
According to a 2010 law relating to electronic messages, signatures, and transactions, intermediaries and service providers are not held liable for content transmitted through their networks. Nonetheless, service providers are required to remove content when handed a takedown notice, and there are no avenues for appeal.
Government-run social media accounts were used to debate and at times intimidate individuals who posted online comments considered critical of the government.
The government blocked access within the country to several websites critical of its policies, including websites of the Rwandan diaspora.
Academic freedom and cultural events
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom or cultural events, but students and professors practiced self-censorship to avoid accusations of engaging in divisionism or genocide ideology. Local think tanks deferred to government officials in selecting subjects for research, and authorities often prevented or delayed the publication of studies that cast the government in a negative light. The government requires visiting academics to receive official permission to conduct research.
Freedom of peaceful assembly
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government did not always respect this right. The law states it is illegal to demonstrate in a public place without prior authorization. Conviction of violating this provision is punishable by a prison sentence of eight days to six months or a substantial monetary fine. The penalties are increased for illegal demonstrations deemed to have threatened security, public order, or health.
Arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence
Although the constitution and law prohibit such actions, the government continued to monitor homes, movements, telephone calls, email, and personal and institutional communications. Private text messages were sometimes used as evidence in criminal cases. Government informants continued to work within internet and telephone companies, international and local NGOs, religious organizations, media, and other social institutions.
The law requires police to obtain authorization from a state prosecutor prior to entering and searching citizens’ homes. According to human rights organizations, state security forces at times entered homes without obtaining the required authorization.
The law provides legal protection against unauthorized use of personal data by private entities, although officials did not enforce these provisions during the year.
The government blocked some websites, including media outlets, that included content considered contrary to government positions.
In a system where people are compelled to walk on eggs it is overtly hard to confirm freedom of expression can be effective; every citizen spies his neighbor and vice-versa. The reality is that Rwandan laws are externally well designed with a laudable content but their implementation is often depending on involved persons.