An independent Rwandan journalist—one of the few still working in the country—describes being continually harassed and pressured to stop writing articles critical of the government. Many of his colleagues have had to flee the country for their safety. He has chosen to carry on this work inside Rwanda, but the threat of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment hangs over him every day. “Anything can happen to you when you try to write the truth,” he told me in Kigali last week.
Although Human Rights Watch has spent close to 20 years working on Rwanda—before, during, and after the devastating 1994 genocide—the Rwandan government has just denied a work visa to our representative in Kigali. This step is a telling trend toward restrictions in Rwanda in advance of August’s presidential elections.
Those who voice criticism of the current government or its policies risk being labeled political opponents or accused of “genocide ideology.”
Rwandans have made remarkable progress in rebuilding their country since the 1994 genocide and in developing the country’s infrastructure and economy. However, these achievements have not been matched by parallel advances in civil and political rights. Freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly have been routinely curtailed. But the repression has intensified in recent months, casting doubt over whether Rwandans will be able to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming elections in a free and fair way.
The Rwandan Constitution sets forth the basic tenets of democracy and provides for a multiparty system. But in practice, the right to assemble and to vote freely has been restricted as a pre-election chill affects members of political parties, journalists, and the human rights community. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, the ruling party since 1994, has dominated the political scene and maintains a tight grip on the country. It is widely expected that President Paul Kagame will be re-elected in August. Despite this, the government and the ruling party have engaged in increasingly aggressive tactics against opponents and critics.
Leaders and members of three new opposition parties have been harassed, threatened, and intimidated. Two of the parties, the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, have been prevented from registering. The third party, the PS-Imberakuri, eventually managed to register, but has recently been hijacked by “dissident members.” Meetings of the Democratic Green Party and the PS-Imberakuri have been disrupted several times, sometimes violently.
Last week, the government arrested the FDU-Inkingi leader, Victoire Ingabire. Since returning from exile in January, she has come under constant attack in government-controlled and other pro-government media for her public statements calling for investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed by the RPF and the Rwandan army against Hutu civilians. In February, she escaped an attack outside a local government office as she tried to retrieve her identity papers. Since then, she has been questioned repeatedly by the police and prevented from traveling abroad. The latest charges against her include “genocide ideology,” “divisionism” (inciting ethnic division), and collaboration with the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR), an armed group active in the Democratic Republic of Congo and consisting in part of individuals who participated in the 1994 genocide. With Ingabire free on bail but not allowed to leave the capital, she and her party have been effectively paralyzed.
In Kigali, ordinary Rwandans told me they are unable to express their opinions for fear of negative consequences, including criminal prosecution or imprisonment. Those who voice criticism of the current government or its policies risk being labeled political opponents or accused of “genocide ideology.” Ethnicity cannot be mentioned publicly, other than speaking of the “Tutsi genocide.” People who refer to ethnic groups openly can be accused by the government of inciting ethnic division.
Genocide ideology is a vaguely defined offense that is intended to criminalize the expression of ideas that could lead to genocide. Established in 2008, the crime carries a punishment of 10 to 25 years in prison and fines of up to $2,000, while political groups and nonprofit organizations risk being disbanded if they are found guilty. While its proclaimed intent is to prevent a return to violence, the law is so vague and broad that it can encompass even the most innocuous comments—and the government often uses it to silence opponents or critics.
Other recent examples of Rwanda’s attempts to stifle free speech include the suspension of the BBC Kinyarwanda service in 2009, allegedly for giving genocide deniers a platform in a program The program was never aired, but the suspension lasted two months. Three months later, the Rwandan information minister openly warned that the days of two leading independent Rwandan newspapers “were numbered,” and authorities promptly brought criminal defamation cases against both newspapers. The courts handed down prison sentences to several of the journalists, with heavy fines. In April 2010, the Media High Council, a government-aligned media regulator, ordered both newspapers suspended for six months.
On the human rights front, the strongest independent rights-monitoring organizations have been undermined and infiltrated, one by one. Those who still try to document human rights abuses face constant threats and obstacles, and often feel unable to denounce abuses of a political nature.
In a recent CNN interview, President Kagame said: “I wish to leave a gift with my people. And that gift would be to leave a legacy behind where people can leave power, and pass it on for others to run and lead the country, and it happens in a stable environment, and it becomes a culture and a norm.”
But by limiting peaceful criticism, press freedom, and any meaningful political opposition, President Kagame’s government undercuts his own stated goal. A society in which people cannot speak freely is not a society on which lasting peace or reconciliation can be built.
However impressive Rwanda’s achievements since the genocide, the world should assess not only what Rwanda has come from, but where it is going.
Georgette Gagnon is the Africa director at Human Rights Watch. She leads a team of international researchers who investigate and report on human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa. Gagnon and her team urge governments and others to change their abusive policies through advocacy in African and world capitals, the United Nations and at the African and European Unions. Gagnon has also served with the United Nations in senior posts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Rwanda.