Rwanda – free speech for some

by Marius Smith

Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, took to Twitter this week to talk to his 28,000 followers in a barely comprehensible blizzard of abbreviations, acronyms and exclamation marks.  Over a period of six hours, he derided his critics in the press, discussed the News of the World phone hacking scandal and lampooned calls for presidential term limits.

Kagame’s comments could easily be dismissed as the ravings of yet another African strong man if it weren’t for the huge respect he commands throughout the region. He has become something of a hero for many Africans, partly for his role in leading the forces that put an end to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and partly for presiding over what some have labelled an “economic miracle” (the economy deserves plaudits, but it has its strengths and weaknesses). Unwittingly, one person following Kagame’s tweets hinted at Rwanda’s problems when she favourably compared the country to Singapore. Rwanda has more in common, however, with Singapore’s lack of democracy than its booming economy.  In Rwanda’s case, the press has been muzzled, dissent suppressed and critics pursued, often mercilessly.

Kagame’s Twitter stream (a “Twolcano”, in the words of Al Jazeera journalist Mick Hodgkin) received plenty of reactions from others on the microblogging site, and he in turn responded to many of their tweets. Not surprisingly, he avoided questions about his autocratic style of governing and, when I posted two critical tweets, he “blocked” me, which meant that he could no longer see my tweets and it was more difficult (although not impossible) for me to see his. It’s safe to assume that his other critics got the same treatment.

I was particularly disappointed that the President didn’t have the temerity to respond to a question from Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.  Roth and his organisation have been thorns in Kagame’s side for a number of years, publishing regular reports of human rights abuses in Rwanda. In the lead-up to the 2010 presidential elections, Rwanda expelled the organisation’s senior researcher from the country.

On Tuesday night (Melbourne time), Roth attempted to bring up the issue of Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former military colleague of Kagame’s who fell out with his boss and fled to South Africa. Nyamwasa was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt in Johannesburg in June 2010 and the BBC reported just last week that South African intelligence agents recently foiled another attempt on his life. Ten men are currently on trial for the first attempt, and Rwanda has denied involvement in the plot.

Persecution of government enemies is a hallmark of life in Rwanda. Prior to the 2010 presidential election, the three main opposition parties were prevented from participating in the elections and opposition leaders were harassed, jailed and murdered.  Two party leaders – Victoire Ingabire (leader of the FDU Inkingi party) and Bernard Ntaganda (founder of the PS Imberakuri party) – were arrested before the elections. Ntaganda was subsequently sentenced to four years’ jail for inciting ethnic division and Ingabire is currently on trial for terrorism and “genocide ideology” (that law is a topic for another blog).  More disturbingly, the Vice President of the Democratic Green Party, Andre Rwisekera, was abducted and brutally murdered less than a month before polling day.

The press has come in for similar treatment in Rwanda. Independent newspapers have been shut down and a number of journalists silenced: prosecuted for charges such as criminal defamation and threatening state security, forced to flee the country, and even murdered. Human Rights Watch has compiled an excellent timeline detailing the intimidation of politicians and journalists in the run-up to the elections.

Kagame’s Tuesday twolcano enabled some of his critics to air their grievances in a public forum which is difficult to control. Nevertheless, criticising African governments – especially one led by the hero Kagame – can be problematic for westerners, as illustrated by the feedback that Kagame received on Twitter, which was overwhelmingly positive and coupled with criticisms of “sanctimonious westerners”, “fly in fly out western ‘experts’” and a “white messiah”  (directed at the UK journalist Ian Birrell).  Witness the puzzling backflips of the award-winning American author and journalist Stephen Kinzer, who seems unsure of how to deal with such a venerated African leader. In 2010, Kinzer wrote about Kagame’s dangerous crackdown on opposition politicians, then later that year criticised Ken Roth for attacking Kagame, labelling it “human rights imperialism”.  Less than a month after that, Kinzer savagely turned on Kagame, lambasting him for imprisoning his enemies (a very good summary of Kagame’s more recent sins, incidentally).

The claims of “western imperialism” made by Kagame’s supporters shouldn’t stop people around the world from calling him to account for crushing dissent, curbing free speech and clinging to power at any cost. Especially when anyone who says these things inside Rwanda has a target on their back.

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