Rwanda: Intolerance and Crackdown on freedom of expression
Kigali – The recent denial of a work visa to Human Rights Watch’s representative in Kigali by Rwandan government takes place against a backdrop of
increasing intolerance of dissent and criticism and increasing restrictions on free expression in the run-up to presidential elections in August.
Members of opposition parties have been harassed, threatened, and intimidated.
Two of the new opposition parties – the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda – have been prevented from registering and have been repeatedly obstructed by the authorities.
Meetings of the Democratic Green Party and the PS-Imberakuri (a third opposition party) have been disrupted several times, sometimes violently.
The PS-Imberakuri eventually managed to register, but has since been hijacked by “dissident members” widely believed to have been manipulated by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to silence the party’s president, Bernard Ntaganda.
Ntaganda himself was summoned before the Senate at the end of 2009 on accusations of “genocide ideology.”
He has not been charged, but in April 2010, members of the Senate’s political commission expressed their view that these accusations were well-founded.
Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU-Inkingi, has been questioned by the police on six occasions since February 2010 (she returned to Rwanda in January 2010 after many years in exile), effectively paralyzing her party’s activities.
In March, police stopped her at the airport and prevented her from travelling.
On April 21, she was arrested and charged with “genocide ideology,” “divisionism,” and collaboration with terrorist groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda – FDLR), an armed group active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, composed in part of individuals who took part in the 1994 genocide.
Ingabire was released on bail on April 22, but is not allowed to leave the country or to go outside the capital, Kigali.
There has been an unrelenting public campaign against her in the pro-government media, relating primarily to public statements in which she criticized the government and called for justice for killings of Hutu by the RPF.
Journalists have also faced numerous problems in the course of their work.
The state prosecutor has sued the two independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi for defamation, a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment.
Both cases are currently at the appeal stage.
On April 13, the Media High Council, a government-aligned body responsible for regulating the media, suspended the two newspapers for six months.
Umuseso and Umuvugizi are among the few independent media left in Rwanda; both have published articles critical of the government.
Broader restrictions on free expression
More broadly, Human Rights Watch has found that many ordinary Rwandans are unable to express their opinions openly.
Those who voice criticism of the government or its policies risk being labelled opponents, accused of being in league with opposition parties or with people who allegedly want to topple the government, or accused of “genocide ideology” – a vaguely defined criminal offense which carries penalties of 10 to 25 years’ imprisonment.
After years of intimidation of civil society activists, very few independent human rights organizations are left in Rwanda.
Those who are still trying to document human rights abuses are facing constant threats and obstacles.
For example, in the run-up to the 2008 parliamentary elections, the League for Human Rights in the Great Lakes Region (Ligue des droits de la personne dans la région des Grands Lacs – LDGL) was prevented from deploying its full election observer mission and was attacked by the National Electoral Commission before its report came out.
Members of the human rights organization LIPRODHOR have also faced serious threats over several years, causing many of their key members to leave the country for their own safety, and leaving the organization significantly weakened.
[Human Rights Watch – www.hrw.org]