Rwanda continues to face a consistent problem of censorship that has affected the country’s media environment for many years.
According to IFEX, a new regulation was enforced by the Rwandan National Electoral Commission that would require presidential candidates to obtain approval for any campaign message that they post online.
The new law would also allow the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the ruling party of President Kagame, who became the first elected president of the country in 1998, to censor any speech expressing opposition to the regime.
This is not the first incident of the RPF manipulating Rwandan elections in its favor. Several archived Human Rights Watch reports from the start of the 21st century illustrate how far back this pattern of media suppression goes.
According to a 2001 report by HRW, the RPF and associated authorities used various methods to sway the populace to vote the party’s desired candidates in local elections, despite political parties being barred from such electoral activity. Citizens feared facing punishment or a fine if they did not vote, and to some, voting was believed to be completely obligatory.
Advanced regulations that aim to create a level playing field for all political candidates are in place, but the RPF continuously abuses those regulations for their own benefit. Campaigning was only permitted for 15 days under conditions set by the electoral commission. Violation of these rules also resulted in fines and punishment.
In addition, a 2000 archived report from Human Rights Watch details an example of media censorship by the Kagame regime.
The report details the story behind the first democratic election in Rwanda between the RPF and the Liberal Party. At the time, Joseph Sebarenzi was in power as the President of the National Assembly. The government forced him to resign, accusing him of several offenses that eventually forced him to flee the country to Uganda. He later fled to Europe and finally to the United States.
After the elimination of Sebarenzi, a special issue of Imboni, a Rwandan journal, published a piece discussing Sebarenzi’s expulsion. Soon after, the publication was pulled, and many of its writers turned to self-imposed exile. This censorship trend has continued throughout the Kagame presidency.
As seen above from Freedom House’s 2017 profile on Rwanda, the country has a “Not Free” press freedom status, attributing political environment as the leading factor in press restrictions.
There are several examples given for why Rwanda has such low scores.
Although the Rwandan constitution, for example, contains portions on freedom of speech, it also provides the Rwandan government broad latitude to restrict speech. This environment of censorship is most prominently displayed in the country’s recent election.
According to Amnesty International, three journalists were detained in 2016 because of their investigations into sensitive issues that would have put the Rwandan government in a bad light. During the presidential election in August, the Kagame regime was firm in its repression to ensure positive election results.
The election, according to The Guardian, resulted in Kagame winning 99 percent of all votes cast, giving Kagame a third term.
Despite Rwanda being a strong economic example to the rest of Africa, questions remain about the country’s free speech suppression and media censorship.