Rwanda’s laws on genocide ideology and divisionism are hampering freedom of speech and compromising journalists’ roles of informing the public because they are vague, a new report by Amnesty International says.
The laws on “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism”, more commonly known as “divisionism”, were put in place after the 1994 genocide incited by hate speech and radio, to encourage unity and restrict speech that could promote hatred. More than 800,000 people died in the genocide.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by President Paul Kagame has been in power since it halted the genocide and has since tightly controlled political space, civil society and the media.
The Human rights watchdog notes that while prohibiting hate speech is a legitimate aim, the government of Rwanda is using the laws to violate human rights especially freedom of speech.
“The law calls for punishment of: ‘Any person who disseminates genocide ideology in public through documents, speeches, pictures, and media or any other means,’ the report says. “This provision leaves unclear whether journalists could be prosecuted for reporting on cases of alleged ‘genocide ideology’. This lack of clarity may infringe journalists’ rights to freedom of expression and compromise their professional duty to inform the public.”
Both national and international media critical of the Rwanda government have been affected by the laws according to the report titled Safer to Stay Silent: The Chilling Effect of Rwanda’s Laws on ‘Genocide Ideology’ and ‘Sectarianism’
Journalists, the report says, have been rebuked in media outlets close to the government for drawing attention to deficiencies in the above laws.
In the run up to the August 9 presidential elections, the government limited criticism in the country by opposition politicians and journalists. Two opposition candidates were arrested and charged, among other things, with “genocide ideology”. A newspaper editor was also arrested on the same charge.
In July, an editor of the Kinyarwanda-language weekly Umurabyo was arrested over allegations that the paper had published stories “inciting the public to disobey,” “articles related to division and ethnicity,” and “rumors that can cause disturbance in the country,”
In 2009, the report adds, “A Media Law placed undue restrictions on press freedom, and journalists critical of the government remain barred from government press conferences. Newspapers were shut down by the Rwandan High Media Council (HMC), a body closely linked to the ruling party. Restrictions on freedom of expression and association, compounded by ambiguous “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” laws, as well as those that criminalize “insulting the President”, have a cumulative effect in silencing dissent in Rwandan society,” reads the report.
On 25 April 2009, the BBC Kinyarwanda service was suspended by the Rwandan government after it relayed a programme discussing forgiveness after the 1994 genocide. The show also aired an interview with Faustin Twagiramungu, a former presidential candidate, opposing attempts to have all Hutus apologise for the genocide as not all had participated in it.
The government argued that the broadcast incited “divisionism” and constituted genocide denial.
Earlier in 2006, the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) were accused of disseminating “genocide ideology”.
The human rights watchdog is calling upon the Rwanda government to make a clear public commitment to freedom of expression and publicly agree to review past convictions under “genocide ideology”, “divisionism” or related laws.