Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press “in conditions prescribed by the law,” but the government severely restricted this right. Journalists reported government officials questioned, threatened, and at times arrested journalists who expressed views deemed critical of the government on sensitive topics.
The Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body, sometimes intervened on journalists’ behalf. Some journalists reported the RMC lost its independence following the 2015 ouster and subsequent exile of its elected chairperson Fred Muvunyi. Journalists reported all positions on the RMC board were filled in close consultation with the government and called into question the board’s independence.
Freedom of Expression: There were no official restrictions on individuals’ right to criticize the government publicly or privately on policy implementation and other issues, but broad interpretation of provisions in the penal code had a chilling effect on such criticism. The government generally did not tolerate criticism of the presidency and government policy on security, human rights, and other matters deemed sensitive. On occasion, journalists who criticized the government were later arrested on charges unrelated to their work. For example, on September 10, media reported police had detained independent journalist Robert Mugabe and were questioning him regarding allegations that he had engaged in sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl. Earlier in the month, Mugabe had used his Twitter account to question the results of the 2015 constitutional referendum and 2017 presidential election and to criticize the government for having arrested opposition politician Diane Rwigara. Mugabe had also reported that police had harassed him in 2017 by summoning him for questioning on a daily basis during the course of two weeks and that he had been accused of committing treason and threatening state security after criticizing the government in 2016.
In March, Joseph Nkusi, a founding member of the Ishema party, was convicted of inciting civil disobedience and spreading rumors and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment by the Kigali High Court. Nkusi moved to Norway in 2009 where he applied for asylum and started a blog that was blocked by the Rwandan government. In 2016 he was deported back to his country of origin where he was arrested and charged. A date for his appeal had not been set by year’s end.
Laws prohibiting divisionism, genocide ideology, and genocide denial were broadly applied and discouraged citizens from expressing viewpoints that could be construed as promoting societal divisions. The law prohibits making use of speech, writing, or any other act that divides the populace or may set them against each other or cause civil unrest because of discrimination. Conviction of “instigating divisions” is punishable by five to seven years’ imprisonment and fines of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($575 to $1,150). Authorities applied the laws broadly, including to silence political dissent and to shut down investigative journalism. The law also prohibits spreading “false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause public disaffection against the government,” for which conviction is punishable by seven to 10 years’ imprisonment. The government investigated and prosecuted individuals accused of threatening or harming genocide survivors and witnesses or of espousing genocide ideology. For example, in July a court sentenced Leopold Munyakazi to nine years in prison for genocide denial. As evidence prosecutors cited a presentation Munyakazi had delivered abroad in which he described the events of 1994 as a civil war rather than a genocide.
In September the government enacted a revised genocide ideology law that replaced an earlier 2013 law. Like the previous version, the updated law incorporated international definitions for genocide and outlined the scope of what constitutes “genocide ideology” and related offenses. Specifically, the law provides that any person who denies, minimizes, or justifies the 1994 genocide is liable to a prison term of five to seven years and a fine of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($575 to $1,150). Authorities applied the statute broadly, and there were numerous reports of its use to silence persons critical of government policy.
The RNP reported significantly fewer individuals arrested during the April genocide commemoration period for spreading genocide ideology than in the preceding year.
Press and Media Freedom: Vendors sold both private and government-owned newspapers published in English, French, and Kinyarwanda. According to the Rwanda Governance Board, there were 40 newspapers, journals, and other publications registered with the government, although fewer than 10 published regularly. Sporadically published independent newspapers maintained positions in support of, or critical of, the government but a lack of advertisement revenue and funds remained serious challenges to continuing operations. Most independent newspapers opted not to publish print editions and released their stories online instead. There were 36 radio stations (six government-owned and 30 independent) and more than 16 television stations, according to the board. 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.
Media professionals reported government officials sought to influence reporting and warned journalists against reporting information deemed sensitive or critical of the government.
The law provides 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.” By law authorities may seize journalists’ material and information if a “media offense” occurs but only under a court order. Journalists reported authorities often seized journalists’ material and equipment 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: In July Reporters Without Borders reported that, while there have been fewer abuses against journalists in recent years because most of the outspoken journalists have either fled abroad or have learned to censor themselves, the government continued to use threats, arrests, and physical violence to silence media outlets and journalists. For example, in May police arrested outspoken journalist John Williams Ntwali and interrogated him for 10 hours before releasing him. Ntwali had previously maintained a blog that was critical of the government. In July journalist Jean Bosco Kabakura fled the country after receiving threats related to his publication of an article examining the roles of police, military, and civilian authorities in the shooting of refugees from the Kiziba refugee camp earlier in the year. Several other journalists who fled in prior years remained outside 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. Reporters Without Borders reported that journalists routinely censored themselves to avoid being targeted by the government.
Radio stations broadcast some criticism of government policies, including on popular citizen call-in shows; however, criticism tended to focus on provincial leaders and local implementation of policies rather than on the president or ruling party leadership. 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. For example, on June 13, Radio Isango Star broadcast a program in which government officials and human rights advocates discussed the government’s progress in implementing recommendations made as part of the country’s Universal Periodic Review. During the official campaign season in advance of the September parliamentary elections, the national public broadcaster interviewed independent candidates and representatives from all participating political parties. Candidates and political parties reported they received fair and equal treatment and were allowed to broadcast political advertisements.
Libel/Slander Laws: The updated penal code enacted in September included provisions that made it illegal to use words, gestures, writings, or cartoons to humiliate members of parliament, members of the cabinet, security officers, or any other public servant, with sentences for conviction of one to two years’ imprisonment and fines of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($575 to $1,150). The law also states that insulting or defaming the president is punishable by five to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of five million to seven million Rwandan francs ($5,750 to $8,050). Defamation of foreign and international officials and dignitaries remains illegal under the updated law, with sentences if convicted of three to five years’ imprisonment. Unlike the previous penal code, however, the code enacted in September does not contain provisions criminalizing public defamation and public insult in general.
National Security: Under 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 used 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 the 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, however, remained in place. The government continued to monitor email and internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views online, including by email 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, 22 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
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 as well as the news blogs of some independent journalists living in Rwanda.
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 often prevented or delayed 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, child labor, refugees, human rights problems, or the genocide.
The constitution, law, or both provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government did not always respect this right. The updated penal code states it is illegal to demonstrate in a public place without prior authorization. Violation of this provision is punishable by a prison sentence of eight days to six months or a fine of 500,000 to one million Rwandan francs ($575 to $1,150) or both. For illegal demonstrations deemed to have threatened security, public order, or health, the penalties are increased. Even with prior written authorization, public meetings were subject to disruption or arbitrary closure.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
While the constitution provides for freedom of association, the government limited the right. The law requires private organizations to register. Although the government generally granted licenses, it impeded the formation of political parties, restricted political party activities, and delayed or denied registration to local and international NGOs seeking to work on human rights, media freedom, or political advocacy (see section 3). In addition the government imposed burdensome NGO registration and renewal requirements, especially on international NGOs, as well as time-consuming requirements for annual financial and activity reports (see section 5). On September 10, the government enacted legislation imposing additional registration requirements on faith-based organizations (FBOs). The law requires FBOs to obtain legal status from the government before beginning operations. It also calls for legal representatives of FBOs and preachers with supervisory responsibilities to hold academic degrees.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, although there were reports that passports were withheld for lengthy periods.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. As of September the government hosted more than 68,000 Burundian refugees and approximately 76,000 Congolese refugees. As of September there were also approximately 5,300 asylum seekers whose claims remained pending. The government continued to grant prima facie refugee status to Burundian refugees fleeing instability after Burundi’s 2015 presidential election. For other nationalities significant delays existed in the application of individual refugee status determinations; UNHCR reported working with the government to improve the process.
UNHCR supported the Mahama Camp for Burundian refugees and five camps primarily for Congolese refugees with international and national NGOs, providing for basic health, water, sanitation, housing, food, and educational needs, in coordination with the government. Authorities sometimes restricted access to the camps. UNHCR reported good cooperation with the government and local community. The government continued to work with UNHCR on expanding the integration of refugees into the national education system, as well as on increasing livelihood opportunities. In January the government and UNHCR launched an exercise to verify the refugee status of refugees in urban areas and in the six camps, issue refugees identification cards, and enroll refugees in social service programs.
UNHCR, in agreement with the government and 14 host countries, recommended in 2015 the invocation of the “ceased circumstances” clause for Rwandans who fled the country between 1959 and 1998 with an agreement with African states hosting Rwandan refugees that refugees were to be assisted in returning to Rwanda or obtaining legal permanent residency in host countries by December 2017. The cessation clause forms part of the 1951 Refugee Convention and may be applied when fundamental and durable changes in a refugee’s country of origin, such that they no longer have a well founded fear of persecution, remove the need for international protection. As of September more than three million exiled Rwandans had returned. The government worked with UNHCR and other aid organizations to assist the returnees, most of whom resettled in their districts of origin.
The government accepted former Rwandan combatants who returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Rwandan Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, with international support, placed adult former combatants in a three-month re-education program at the Mutobo Demobilization Center in Northern Province. After completion, each adult former combatant was enrolled automatically in the RDF Reserve Force and received a cash allowance. In June, 51 participants were discharged from the center under this program. The Musanze Child Rehabilitation Center treated former child combatants.
Foreign Travel: The law allows a judge to deprive convicted persons of the right to travel abroad as a stand-alone punishment or as punishment following imprisonment. Government officials must obtain written permission from the Office of the Prime Minister or the president before traveling abroad for official or personal reasons. The government restricted the travel of existing and former security-sector officials.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Authorities generally provided adequate security and physical protection within refugee camps. The RNP worked with UNHCR to maintain police posts on the edge of and station police officers in refugee camps. Refugees were free to file complaints at both camp and area police stations. In February at least 10 refugees from the Kiziba refugee camp were killed after clashing with police in Kibuye, a town near the camp; several others were injured, as were seven police officers. Approximately 500 refugees had left the camp and marched to the UNHCR office in Kibuye to protest ration cuts and discrimination in the local labor market and voice other grievances. Security officials said police responded with force when some protesters began throwing rocks and pieces of metal at police officers. As of September, 15 refugees were arrested and awaiting trial. At the end of April and the beginning of May, one refugee was killed and several others were injured while clashing with police in the Kiziba camp. According to security officials, refugees had attempted to prevent police officers from conducting patrols in the camp.
The government agreed to implement the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2016. There were reports of Burundi-affiliated militia sympathizers infiltrating refugee camps in Rwanda during the year. On occasion police conducted security sweeps in the Mahama camp and expelled unauthorized individuals.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. UNHCR, with government and donor support, assisted approximately 150,600 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Burundi and the DRC. Of these, approximately 5,300 were asylum seekers who continued to face delays in the adjudication of their asylum claims to settle in the country. An interagency committee that makes individual refugee status determinations in cases where claimants are not eligible for prima facie refugee status met infrequently.
In July an Israeli newspaper reported Israel was no longer deporting asylum seekers of Eritrean and Sudanese origin from Israel to Rwanda.
Freedom of Movement: The law does not restrict freedom of movement of asylum seekers, but refugees continued to experience delays in the issuance of identity cards and convention travel documents. As of September the government had conducted a joint verification exercise with UNHCR in Kigali, Huye, the Gihembe camp, and the Nyabiheke camp. As part of this exercise, eligible refugees received identity cards allowing them to move around the country and open bank accounts. UNHCR reported it intended to continue the verification exercise for the remainder of the year but did not expect to visit all camps by year’s end.
Employment: No laws restrict refugee employment, and in 2016 the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs launched a livelihoods strategy with UNHCR aimed at increasing the ability of refugees to work on the local economy. As of August implementation continued, but many refugees were unable to find local employment.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees had access to public education through grade nine, public health care, housing within the refugee camps, law enforcement, courts and judicial procedures, and legal assistance. A limited number of refugees completed secondary education and were enrolled in universities. Kepler, a nonprofit higher education program, collaborated with UNHCR and Southern New Hampshire University to operate a campus in the Kiziba camp.
Refugees in the camps received basic health care from humanitarian agencies and had access to secondary and tertiary care coordinated by UNHCR. Some refugee children in urban areas had access to government health-care services, as did elderly urban refugees. During the year the government continued to work to allow urban refugees of all ages to access government health-care services.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. The government assisted the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their countries and sought to improve local integration of refugees in protracted stays by permitting them to accept local employment and move freely in the country and by establishing markets to facilitate trade between refugees and local citizens. The government did not facilitate the naturalization of refugees resident in the country.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees.