While the rules governing civic space in Rwanda are relatively progressive, in practice civil society organisations and human rights defenders must operate within seriously confined boundaries if they are to avoid harassment or censure.read more
American pastor deported on accusation of hate speech, President Kagame denies spying on dissidents abroad, while outspoken government critic confirms being a victim of surveillance while in exile
On 15th October, Rwanda deported American evangelical Pastor, Gregg Schoof, accusing him of broadcasting hateful sermons that called women “evil creatures” through his evangelical church's radio programme. After the said sermons, Schoof was arrested for “illegally meeting with journalists in a public space” after he tried to hold a press conference to criticise the Rwandan government's decision to shut down his controversial evangelical radio station. He was deported a few hours later together with his family.
Many Rwandans lauded the move by government, denouncing what they considered as hate speech by Schoof, while his supporters criticised the action by government as a crackdown related to a culture clash between Pentecostal communities and the Kagame administration, which has been inclined toward a more secular stance.
In November 2019, Rwandan President Paul Kagame hit back at allegations that he spied on opponents through their phones, saying thetechnology needed to do so was too expensive. This came after a recent investigative report by the Financial Times revealed massive hacking and surveillance by governments such as Rwanda, especially targeting journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, political opposition members and other dissidents. The report also revealed that of the individuals identified as having been targeted, a substantial number were from Rwanda.
In October 2019, Faustin Rukundo, an outspoken critic of the Rwandan regime who lives in exile in Leeds, said he and fellow members of the Rwanda National Congress - a group opposing the Rwandan government - were targeted via the messaging service WhatsApp. As reported previously on the Monitor, Australia's national broadcaster reported that a network of alleged Rwandan spies has been working to suppress dissident refugees in the country, with expat and refugee Rwandans saying that silencing critics and suppressing support for opposition parties in exile are among the top priorities of the Rwandan Government.
The independence of civil society organisations in Rwanda is seriously compromised in practice – those that cooperate with the government can operate relatively freely, while those that do not face interference, harassment or closure.
The independence of civil society organisations in Rwanda is seriously compromised in practice – those that cooperate with the government can operate relatively freely, while those that do not face interference, harassment or closure. In 2016, there are few active human rights organisations in Rwanda and some of those that do exist have either been undermined by state intelligence infiltration or weakened by internal divisions. In October 2015, seven steering committee members of the remaining rights organisations, the Great Lakes Human Rights League (LDGL), were arrested and briefly detained. The LDGL’s acting Executive Secretary Epimack Kwokwo was arrested in 2015 and was continually harassed, including through threatening phone calls, because of his work to protect human rights defenders in Rwanda. Kwokwo was expelled from the country in May 2016. Civil society representatives surveyed in 2011 were generally positive about their experiences of registering an organisation, although some have criticised the requirement to reregister on an annual basis. Relatively enabling NGO laws passed in 2008 and 2012 are undermined by the imposition of excessively bureaucratic requirements for registration and limits on overhead spending by INGOs. Rwandan law does not impose any barriers on foreign funding of local CSOs.
While the Constitution protects the right to assemble in public, the law regulating this right requires that organisers give the authorities a month’s notice of their intention to gather.
While the Constitution protects the right to assemble in public, the law regulating this right requires that organisers give the authorities a month’s notice of their intention to gather. Spontaneous demonstrations are not provided for the in law. In practice, individuals often refrain from taking to the streets to demonstrate out of a fear of being arrested. As a result protests in Rwanda are rare, although demonstrations related to the Rwandan government’s actions are frequently organised by diaspora communities living in other countries in Africa and Europe. When protestors in Rwanda fall foul of the rules governing public assemblies, they are liable to be punished with a large fine or up to three years in jail.
There are substantial limitations on the right to free expression in Rwanda. Criticism of the government carries risks, and many journalists self-censor their reporting.
There are substantial limitations on the right to free expression in Rwanda. Criticism of the government carries risks, and many journalists self-censor their reporting. Journalists and media houses violating these unwritten rules are regularly targeted. In January 2016, investigative reporter John William Ntwali was arrested on trumped up charges and detained for 13 days. In 2014, his news website Ireme was hacked during a two-week period of attack on the media. In February 2016, the offices of The East African were raided by police who arrested one journalist and confiscated two computers. Foreign media also face restrictions in Rwanda. In October 2014, the authorities suspended BBC radio broadcasts within the country, a decision which was made indefinite at the end of May 2015. Fred Muvunyi, the head the Rwanda Media Commission fled the country saying he feared for his own safety after the commission argued with government over the BBC suspension. The ten year sentence imposed on singer Kizito Mihigo in 2015 highlighted that the private communications of people in Rwanda can be easily intercepted and read by the state. Mihigo was convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government, and the content of WhatsApp and Skype messages sent to opposition critics in exile were used as key evidence. Despite attempts by the government to expand Internet access in Rwanda, penetration remained at just 11% in 2014, and the government blocked certain sites on the grounds that their content violated strict media laws or prohibitions on ‘genocide denial’.