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 and stated the election of the RMC’s board in December 2016 violated the organization’s bylaws that require a majority of the organization’s members to be present for the election of leadership. Journalists reported all positions on the RMC board were filled in close consultation with the government.
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. For example, in January independent journalist Robert Mugabe reported being summoned by police for questioning on a daily basis during the course of two weeks; he also tweeted that he was accused of committing treason and threatening state security in the wake of his critical coverage of the government’s annual National Dialogue in December 2016. Mugabe was not charged with a crime and was not formally detained.
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 ($118 to $1,183). Authorities applied the laws broadly, including to silence political dissent and to shut down investigative journalism. Authorities also broadly applied a provision in the penal code criminalizing “knowingly spreading rumors to excite the population against the established government,” for which conviction is punishable by 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment.
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 for conviction of one to two years’ imprisonment and fines of 50,000 to 500,000 Rwandan francs ($59 to $592). The penal code also made penalties more severe, including life in prison for conviction of acts committed during wartime. Defamation of foreign and international officials and dignitaries is illegal, with sentences if convicted of one to three years’ imprisonment.
In 2013 a revised genocide ideology law was signed into 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, defined by law 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.
In mid-April the RNP reported 24 arrests for spreading genocide ideology during the first two weeks of April.
Press and Media Freedom: Vendors sold both private and government-owned newspapers published in English, French, and Kinyarwanda. According to the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), 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. There were 36 radio stations (six government-owned and 30 independent) and more than 16 television stations, according to the RGB. 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 several media outlets to close during the year.
A set of five media laws passed in 2013 provide for greater press freedoms but had no discernable effect on those freedoms. Media professionals reported government officials sought to influence reporting and warned journalists against reporting information deemed sensitive or critical of the government. The RGB’s 2016 Media Barometer gave the government high marks for establishing a regulatory environment conducive to freedom of expression and democratic discourse. Civil society groups criticized RGB’s finding, noting that by the government’s own admission under the UN Human Rights Council-led Universal Periodic Review, certain provisions in the law undermine freedom of expression.
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. In practice journalists reported that 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: There were reports police and the SSF at times detained and harassed journalists. On September 1, several independent journalists reported harassment by police and the Republican Guard outside the Rwigara residence, an incident RNP spokesperson Theos Badege dismissed as “a case of mistaken identity and miscommunication.”
In January owner and editor of the newspaper Rwanda Focus, Shyaka Kanuma, published a social media post alleging that he was summoned for questioning by NISS. Within days Kanuma’s social media accounts were suspended, and he was charged with fraud and tax evasion. In December, Kanuma was released after completing a one-year sentence.
Several journalists who fled in prior years remained outside the country, including former RMC chairman Fred Muvunyi, who went into self-exile in 2016 after arguing against the government’s 2014 suspension of the BBC’s Kinyarwanda service following the broadcast of a BBC documentary that 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 that editorial boards for major print and broadcast media companies censored information deemed critical of the RPF or government policies. During the presidential campaign, independent candidates reported that radio stations refused to accept their paid advertisements due to fear of retaliation 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. 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. The Rwanda Broadcasting Agency organized the country’s first-ever presidential debate, which was broadcast live on national radio and television. Only one candidate attended, however, while the others were instead represented by a member of their party.
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 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 remained in place, however. There were numerous reports the government monitored 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 2016.
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 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. Authorities may legally require advance notice for public meetings and demonstrations and must respond to notification within one week or 15 days, depending on the type of event. Even with prior written authorization, public meetings were subject to disruption or arbitrary closure. Some civil society groups reported being denied authorization to hold public meetings after the government refused to grant them NGO registration.
In the period preceding the presidential campaign, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR) reported numerous instances of authorities intimidating their members, shutting down meetings, and sending police or village security officers to disrupt gatherings. In July, early in the presidential campaign, local authorities reportedly organized local groups of schoolchildren to disrupt campaign rallies of the president’s challengers and denied them meeting space. After local media reported on citizen complaints of harassment faced by independent candidates, the government arrested several local leaders, and the minister of local government issued a statement warning local authorities not to disrupt campaign rallies. For the remainder of the campaign, the two opposition and independent candidates were able to campaign without harassment.
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 difficult and 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). In July a December 2016 law consolidating RGB authority over the operation of all media, research, religious-based, domestic, and international NGOs came into force. Domestic civil society groups stated the law introduced additional requirements and exacerbated the difficulties faced by civil organizations.
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.
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 December the government hosted more than 87,000 Burundian refugees and approximately 74,000 Congolese refugees. 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. There were also approximately 9,000 Congolese asylum seekers who requested asylum in 2015-16 and whose claims had not been adjudicated by year’s end. According to UNHCR, their group claim was pending a joint verification exercise with the government that had been initially scheduled for October 2016. It had yet to be conducted by year’s end.
UNHCR supported 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 excellent 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. The government also reported identifying a mechanism for enrolling urban refugees, who did not previously have access to health services, into the national health insurance scheme, but had not begun enrollment by year’s end, pending the start of the verification exercise.
In 2015 UNHCR, in agreement with the government and 14 host countries, recommended 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 31, 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. More than three million exiled Rwandans had returned, including nearly 15,000 from January through November. 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 DRC. The Rwandan Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, with international support, placed adult former combatants in a three-month re-education program at Mutobo Demobilization Center in Northern Province. After completion, each adult former combatant was enrolled automatically in the RDF Reserve Force and received 60,000 Rwandan francs ($71) and permission to return home. After two months each former combatant received an additional 120,000 Rwandan francs ($142). During the 2016-17 fiscal year, 244 former combatants were reintegrated through the program. The Musanze Child Rehabilitation Center, relocated in 2015 from Muhazi, Eastern Province, treated 10 former child combatants in Northern Province during the same timeframe.
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 serving and former security-sector officials and arrested some of those who traveled abroad without authorization.
Members of the unregistered FDU-Inkingi party stated that authorities denied the issuance of or confiscated the passports of party members and their relatives.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Authorities generally provided adequate security and physical protection within refugee camps. The RNP worked with UNHCR to build police posts on the edge of and station police officers in refugee camps. RNP officers were stationed in five of the country’s six refugee camps. Refugees were free to file complaints at both camp and area police stations. Sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) was a problem, and NGOs working on protection noted there was underreporting of GBV cases. In 2016 the government collaborated with UNHCR on a gender assessment that identified GBV and trafficking-in-persons risks in all six camps. The findings were published in March; notably, refugee respondents did not identify government officials among those who perpetrated GBV and were overwhelmingly of the opinion that an increase in RNP presence in the camps would contribute to fewer incidents of GBV. UNHCR reported continuing collaboration with the government on turning the assessment’s recommendations into an action plan to address GBV risks in the camps.
The government did not conduct a public investigation into credible allegations of recruitment of Burundian refugees, including children, from Mahama refugee camp between May and September 2015, and some refugees reported facing continued harassment and intimidation from authorities for their whistleblowing role in reporting recruitment. Some refugee whistleblowers also reported harassment for reporting the 2015 involvement of authorities in the sexual exploitation of refugees in Kigeme camp. There were credible reports of recruitment attempts by government of Burundi-affiliated militia and foreign militants in Congolese camps as well as in Mahama during the year, but–unlike in 2015–no evidence of Rwandan government facilitation or involvement. In July the government detained at least 32 individuals in Mahama refugee camp. Some were accused of minor offenses and were subsequently released. Others, suspected of recruitment, were arrested for allegedly undocumented residence. All suspects were Burundian.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. UNHCR, with government and donor support, assisted approximately 170,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Burundi and the DRC. Of these, approximately 9,000 were Congolese asylum seekers who continued to face protracted delays in the adjudication of their asylum claims. An interagency committee that makes individual refugee status determinations in cases where claimants are not eligible for prima facie refugee status reportedly had not met since 2015, effectively stalling asylum applications from all nationalities other than Burundi and the DRC.
Human rights organizations reported that the government accepted asylum seekers of Eritrean and Sudanese origin deported from Israel to Rwanda and that many of the deportees subsequently were transported to Uganda for a fee. Deportees reported their passports were not stamped upon arrival in Rwanda. Individuals deported from Israel who petitioned UNHCR for asylum reported that their personal identity documents were withheld from them upon arrival in Rwanda.
Freedom of Movement: The law does not place restrictions on freedom of movement of asylum seekers, but refugees stated that delays in the issuance of identity cards and Convention Travel Documents (CTDs) restricted their ability to travel within and outside the country. The government committed to issuing all refugees IDs and machine-readable CTDs upon the conclusion of a joint verification exercise with UNHCR. The exercise was originally scheduled for October 2016 but had yet to be conducted by year’s end.
Employment: No laws restrict refugee employment, and in 2016 the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs jointly launched a livelihoods strategy with UNHCR aimed at increasing the ability of refugees to work on the local economy. Officials acknowledged that implementation of the strategy had been slow and the majority of refugees were unable to find local employment. Refugees cited lack of government-issued identity documents and the widespread perception among potential employers that the law prevents the employment of refugees as their main obstacles to finding employment.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees had access to public education through grade 9, 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. Refugees who arrived prior to 2013 were registered and provided with biometric IDs similar to the national identity cards; however, there were significant delays in the issuance of identity documents to refugees who entered the country in 2013 and after. Refugees in the camps received basic health care and treatment for more complicated cases through the national health insurance scheme for which UNHCR reimbursed the government. There were, however, approximately 33,000 Burundi-origin urban refugees residing mostly in Kigali and Huye who could not access the national health insurance scheme. During the year the Ministries of Health and Refugee Affairs reached agreement on enrolling these refugees in the national health insurance scheme once the joint verification exercise with UNHCR was completed. UNHCR and the government agreed to expand access to secondary education beyond ninth grade and collaborated on increasing integrated learning opportunities with the construction of more than 100 additional integrated classrooms in local communities during the year.
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 individual asylum seekers who might not qualify as refugees.