Amnesty International (AI) has released a report encouraging the government to amend the country’s laws pertaining to freedom of expression. The report, released 31st August titled “Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’’ also appeals for a review of past convictions and increased training on how to investigate accusations of transgressions of freedom of expression.
‘Genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ laws were introduced following the horrific events of the ‘94 genocide. These laws were implemented under the banner of ‘never again’, to restrict speech that could inflame communal hatred. However, critics have argued that the longevity of such policies has ensured that freedom of speech in the country remains limited.
Over the past sixteen years, it appears the events of the genocide have legitimised some human rights breaches that seem to have been instilled by the country’s administration, and seen as a trade-off for stability in a post-war and reconstructive environment.
While President Kagame appears to have a substantial amount of domestic support, critics fear that the lack of political liberalisation throughout the electoral period may be a sign of the country’s drift towards authoritarianism. ‘The nation he leads with Western assistance has become more efficient and neatly run than other central African countries. But we must not suppose that it is a free society,’ former US ambassador to Burundi Robert Krueger wrote in Foreign Policy Review just ahead of the 9th August election.
In the lead up to the presidential elections, several senior army officers were arrested and political tension was induced by the closure of media houses and countless arrests of opposition politicians such as Victoire Ingabire. A growing air of suppression subsequently led key political figures like the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to call for a ‘thorough investigation into the latest incidents’.
The real question therefore is how can democratic politics continue in Rwanda without freedom of expression and a growing air of repression? ‘The ambiguity of the ‘genocide ideology’ and ‘sectarianism’ law means Rwandans live in fear of being punished for saying the wrong thing,’ said Erwin van der Borght, Africa Program director at Amnesty International. ‘Most take the safe option of staying silent.’
While some policies have settled the country through a difficult transition, analysts argue that they were merely meant to be a short term measure. The endurance of free and democratic values is dependent upon the administration’s mechanisms for monitoring the media and ensuring that freedom reigns in a balanced and fair manner.