The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press “in conditions prescribed by the law,” but the government severely restricted these rights. Journalists reported government officials questioned, threatened, and at times arrested journalists who expressed views deemed critical on sensitive topics.
The Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body, sometimes intervened on journalists’ behalf, as it did in the August disappearance of journalist John Ndabarasa. The RMC also remonstrated against the attack on a foreign journalist, who was injured by a DASSO officer while covering a DASSO operation in May. Journalists also reported the RMC lost its independence following the May 2015 ouster and subsequent exile of its elected chairperson Fred Muvunyi.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: There were no official restrictions on individuals’ right to criticize the government publicly or privately on policy implementation and other issues. Nonetheless, the government generally did not tolerate criticism of the presidency and government policy on security and other matters that were deemed sensitive. For example, in February the RNP detained two journalists who were preparing a report on tax evasion involving the country’s main stone quarry. After their release, the journalists recounted how members of the RMC accompanied the RNP officers who searched and confiscated computers and various files before detaining them.
Laws prohibiting divisionism, genocide ideology, and genocide denial discouraged citizens from expressing viewpoints some might construe as promoting societal divisions. The law prohibits the propagation of ideas based on “ethnic, regional, racial, religious, language, or other divisive characteristics.” Conviction of public incitement to “genocide ideology” or “divisionism,” including discrimination and sectarianism, is punishable by five to nine years’ imprisonment and fines of 100,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($123 to $1,234). Authorities applied the laws broadly, including to silence political dissent and to shut down investigative journalism.
The 2012 penal code expanded former provisions that prohibited the display of contempt for the head of state or other high-level public officials to include administrative authorities or other public servants, with sentences of one to two years’ imprisonment and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 Rwandan francs ($61 to $617). Other changes included revising the crime of “spreading rumors aimed at inciting the population to rise against the regime” to “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state,” with much more severe penalties, including life in prison for conviction for acts committed during wartime and seven to 10 years’ imprisonment for acts committed in peacetime. Slander and libel of foreign and international officials and dignitaries are illegal, with sentences of one to three years’ imprisonment.
In 2013 the government signed into law a revised genocide ideology law that introduced international definitions for genocide and narrowed the scope of what constitutes “genocide ideology” and related offenses to a more specific range of actions and statements. Specifically, the law states that “genocidal ideology” must be clearly linked to specific acts or statements, rather than the broader “aggregate of thoughts” standard defined in the 2008 law. Nevertheless, authorities applied the statute broadly, and there were numerous reports of its use to silence persons critical of government policy.
The government investigated and prosecuted individuals accused of threatening or harming genocide survivors and witnesses or of espousing genocide ideology, which the law defines as dehumanizing an individual or a group with the same characteristics by threatening, intimidating, defaming, inciting hatred, denying the genocide, taking revenge, altering testimony or evidence, killing, planning to kill, or attempting to kill someone.
Prosecutions for genocide ideology and genocide denial rose from 20 reported cases between October 2014 and September 2015 to 78 cases from October 2015 to September; however, it still fell well short of the nearly 800 cases handled by the NPPA in 2012-13. According to the NPPA, 69 cases were prosecuted to completion, two were dropped, and seven remained pending at year’s end.
Press and Media Freedoms: Vendors sold both private and government-owned newspapers published in English, French, and Kinyarwanda. There were 53 newspapers, journals, and other publications registered with the government, although fewer than 10 published regularly. Sporadically published independent newspapers maintained positions both in support of and contrary to or critical of the government. There were 33 radio stations (six government-owned and 27 independent), one government-run television station, and five independent television stations. Independent media reported a difficult operating environment and highlighted the reluctance of the business community to advertise on radio stations that might be critical of the government, leading one such station to suspend operations. An independently published newspaper that was sometimes critical of the government cited similar reasons in announcing its closure in December.
A set of five media laws passed in 2013 provide for greater press freedoms but had no discernable effect on those freedoms. Despite the reforms, media professionals reported government officials sought to influence reporting and warned journalists against reporting information deemed sensitive or critical of the government. The board of the RMC was reconstituted following the May 2015 resignation of Chairman Fred Muvunyi. Journalists reported all positions on the RMC board were filled in close consultation with the government and the board hewed closely to RPF orthodoxy. Journalists also said the December election of the new RMC board violated the RMC’s bylaws.
The laws provide journalists the freedom to investigate, express opinions, and “seek, receive, give, and broadcast information and ideas through any media.” The law explicitly prohibits censorship of information, but censorship occurred. The laws restrict these freedoms if journalists “jeopardize the general public order and good morals, an individual’s right to honor and reputation in the public eye and to the right to inviolability of a person’s private life and family.” Authorities may seize journalists’ material and information if a “media offense” occurs but only if a court orders it. Authorities sometimes seized journalists’ material without a court order. Courts may compel journalists to reveal confidential sources in the event of an investigation or criminal proceeding. Persons wanting to start a media outlet must apply with the “competent public organ.” All media rights and prohibitions apply to persons writing for websites.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports police and the SSF at times detained and harassed journalists. In January police arrested reporter John Williams Ntwari and charged him with raping a minor. Prior to the arrest, Ntwari reported receiving threats for his coverage of the Rwigara death and expropriation case. Officials released Ntwari after 10 days when other journalists interviewed the alleged victim and discovered that she was not a minor and there was no evidence of use of force.
Several journalists who fled in prior years remained outside the country, including former RMC chairman Fred Muvunyi, who went into self-exile after arguing against the government’s call to ban the BBC’s Kinyarwanda service following the broadcast of a BBC documentary, which was controversial in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law allows the government to restrict access to some government documents and information, including information on individual privacy and information or statements deemed to constitute defamation. Journalists reported editorial boards for major print and broadcast media companies censored information deemed critical of the RPF or government policies.
Radio stations broadcast criticism of government policies, including on popular citizen call-in shows; however, journalists reported self-censorship and were careful to distance themselves from opinions expressed by call-in guests that could be deemed controversial. Some radio stations, including Radio 1, Radio Isango Star, and Radio Salus, had regular call-in shows that featured discussion of government programs or policies. Several radio stations hosted live debates on sensitive topics, such as power sharing after the 2017 presidential elections.
Libel/Slander Laws: Conviction of defamation (libel and slander) is a criminal offense punishable by fines and imprisonment. There were no reports of slander and libel laws being used to suppress freedom of speech or the publication of material that criticized government policies or government officials.
National Security: Under the 2013 media laws, journalists must refrain from reporting items that violate “confidentiality in the national security and national integrity” and “confidentiality of judicial proceedings, parliamentary sessions, and cabinet deliberations in camera.” Authorities invoked these laws to arrest and intimidate journalists covering politically sensitive topics and matters under government investigation.
The media law includes the right of all citizens to “receive, disseminate, or send information through internet,” including the right to start and maintain a website. All provisions of the media laws apply to web-based publications. Restrictions such as website blocking remained in place, however. There were numerous reports the government monitored e-mail and internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views via the internet, including by e-mail and social media, but were subject to monitoring. As in the previous year, there were no confirmed reports monitoring led to detention or interrogation of individuals by the SSF. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 18 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.
Government-run social media accounts were used to debate and at times intimidate individuals who posted online comments considered critical of the government.
The government blocked access within the country to several websites critical of its policies. Such sites included websites of the Rwandan diaspora such as Umuvugizi and Le Profete and online newspapers such as Ireme.com.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government generally did not restrict academic freedom or cultural events, but because academic officials frequently suspended outspoken secondary and university students for divisionism or engaging in genocide ideology, students and professors practiced self-censorship. Local think tanks deferred to government officials in selecting subjects for research, and authorities sometimes prevented the publication of studies that cast the government in a negative light. The government requires visiting academics to receive official permission to conduct research; academics reported occasional harassment and denial of permission to conduct research on political issues, refugees, or the genocide.