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Rwandan Senate’s survey indicates that fear of authorities impacts free speech

Kigali – The deep-rooted fear among Rwandans for those in power affects their ability to express themselves freely – which consequently has an impact on political participation, according to a new national survey by the Senate.

69 percent of those surveyed believe the fear of authority is the major obstacle to freedom of speech and political space, followed closely by the mindset of nepotism and the legacy of Genocide.

The study commissioned by the Senate surveyed a total of 2606 people drawn from two sectors of each of the 30 districts making up the country.

The findings come at a time when government increasingly finds itself under international scrutiny and criticism for stifling the expression of alternative views and lacking a commitment to democracy. At the forefront of this accusation have been Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders (RSF).

The Senate committee and the research agency which conducted the study say the culture of fear has no correlation with government policy or the supposed dominance of the political system by the ruling party.

The researchers, working since February last year, found a majority of Rwandans listing the fear of authorities, a mindset of nepotism, clientelism and corruption, and the legacy of Genocide as the major causes weakening political space and freedom of speech.

A large percentage of those surveyed also listed the unequal strength among political parties as contributing to weak political participation.

The study was on political pluralism and power sharing in Rwanda. Senator Dr. Karemera Joseph chaired the Ad Hoc committee that oversaw the study, while Prof. Anastase Shyaka, executive secretary of the Rwanda Governance Advisory Council (RGAC), led the research.

The study has yet to be formally presented nationwide although it was presented to media on Friday last week and also posted on the parliament’s website.

The researchers explored public sentiments on political pluralism, political space, power sharing and political parties, freedom of speech, democratic principles, and the independence of parliament and judiciary.

For one, the extent of power sharing among all the political parties emerged as one of the campaign issues in the just concluded presidential race. The Social Democratic Party’s (PSD) candidate Dr Jean Damascene Ntawukuriryayo had proposed to extend it from the national level, where it is currently restricted, down to the village level.

The ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) is not only the strongest of all political parties dominating the political scene, it is also the most well-established, down to the village level. Because other parties’ political participation is restricted to the national level, the unofficial understanding is that the RPF holds most of the political and administrative positions across the country.

In conversations with RNA, Senator Karemera argued that the RPF’s dominance is explained by the country’s history and how it has negotiated it. As he sees it, for now there might be a dominant party but as multiparty politics grow and mature in the country, it cannot remain so.

On the culture of fear, Senator Karemera said anybody with an inkling of Rwanda’s history should not be surprised about this situation, and its impact on people’s perceptions. “When a population has lived under repression for a long time, the first characteristic is to fear leaders,” he said.

Both Karemera and Shyaka, the study’s lead researcher, added that this culture is on the decline as ordinary people get increasingly empowered and integrated in decision-making.

The two also questioned the criteria international organisations use to determine the nature of politics and the extent of democratic practice in Rwanda.

“What methodologies do they [international organisations] use to draw their conclusions?” asked Prof. Shyaka while speaking to RNA about the study.

Dr. Karemera on his part wondered how the same organisations defined political and democratic space. “They use different standards and don’t put into considerations what Rwanda has gone through,” he argued.

Their queries are based on figures the same study provides on political pluralism and political space. Up to 80 percent of all respondents said there was full existence of both political pluralism and political space against four percent who disagreed.

Equally, upwards of 60 percent share the view that political parties and politicians enjoy full freedom of speech and have total political space.

Yet this seeming contradiction between Rwandans’ perception of the obstacles to political space and free speech and the extent to which the two aspects exist in the country will easily be fodder for critics of the current regime.

Already, at a seminar in Nairobi organised by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) to discuss and analyse Rwanda’s pre-electoral climate, and where a presentation based on this study was made, there were concerns “whether this culture of fearing leaders may have influenced the respondents thereby skewing the results and if this culture was a fear of leadership in general or a fear of a particular leader.”

[ARI-RNA]

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