Rwanda: The limits of free speech in Rwanda

Published on by KANYARWANDA

The limits of free speech in Rwanda

The country's president claims that laws against disseminating 'genocide ideology' are necessary to stop a return to violence

  • Stephen Kinzer

Sixteen years after genocide, Rwanda is facing a new test. President Paul Kagame, who is seeking re-election, is widely admired abroad. Among his fans are some of the world's most famous do-gooders, from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to Rev Rick Warren and Dr Paul Farmer. His enemies hope to use this election campaign to tarnish his image and show these admirers that he is no democrat.

Rwanda is more stable and prosperous than many would have predicted following the 1994 genocide. The reconciliation process has been at least partly successful. Yet beneath the surface, Rwandan society remains volatile. Hatreds are unexpressed, but no one believes they are gone.

Kagame's government has passed laws against disseminating "genocide ideology", meaning views that could inflame communal hatreds. People are supposed to describe themselves only as Rwandan, never as Hutu or Tutsi. Kagame claims these laws are necessary to keep Rwanda back from the abyss of violence. If he enforces them during the political campaign, though, critics will accuse him of suppressing free speech.

Last month, a Rwandan-born businesswoman who has spent more than a decade in the Netherlands, Victoire Ingabire, arrived in Rwanda and announced that she was a candidate for president. Her party is based abroad and not recognised in Rwanda. According to a UN report (in French), she is supported by leaders of the principal Hutu insurgent group, which is among factions terrorising the eastern Congo.

Ingabire's first statements after landing in Rwanda were thinly veiled appeals for Hutu solidarity. "There is no shame in saying I am Hutu or am Tutsi; there's nothing wrong with that," she told one interviewer.

Appealing to ethic identity this way is illegal. The official press launched a sharp campaign against Ingabire, and her campaign group has been attacked at least once. She has been interrogated by police and warned that she will be arrested if she continues preaching "genocide ideology". Amnesty International responded by accusing the government of "intimidation and harassment".

Nonsense, replies President Kagame. He believes western human rights activists underestimate the prospects for a new outbreak of ethnic violence in Rwanda, as well as the danger of allowing ethnically charged speech. "We've lived this life," he said angrily at a news conference. "We've lived the consequences. So we understand it better than anyone from anywhere else."

Kagame won the last presidential election, in 2003, with a reported 95% of the vote. Critics complained that the campaign was unfair, but Kagame emerged relatively unscathed because few outsiders were paying attention.

Seven years later, Rwanda is in the midst of a promising transformation and Kagame is a darling of the global development community. His enemies know they cannot defeat him in this election; he is the strongman and will do whatever is necessary to win. Their strategy is to bait him into taking actions – like arresting a rival candidate – that would make him look bad abroad and thereby weaken his regime.

Many people in developed countries look suspiciously, as they should, on leaders who impose restrictions on free speech. Even in the US, though, it is illegal to cry "fire!" in a crowded theatre. That is what Rwandan leaders accuse the foreign-based opposition of doing – fanning hatreds that could explode into another genocide. The opposition, in reply, insists it is merely speaking truths Kagame does not wish to hear.

Kagame, who was called the "Napoleon of Africa" during his march to power in the early 1990s, is acknowledged to have great military skills. His political skills are less tested. Between now and the election on 9 August, he must navigate a delicate course that will assure him three things: re-election, national stability and minimum damage to his reputation. This is to be his last campaign, since the Rwandan constitution limits presidents to two seven-year terms. How he conducts it will shape both his legacy and Rwanda's future.

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