CIVICUS

MonitorTracking civic space

Rwanda

Live rating: Repressed

Last updated on 17.04.2020 at 08:59

Rwanda Overview

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

The Civic Space Developments

view Civic Space Developments
Civil Society calls for investigation into death of popular musician and activist

Civil Society calls for investigation into death of popular musician and activist

Civil society calls for for justice over the death of popular singer and activist Kizito Mihigo who was found dead in his cell on 17th February 2020; Rwanda and Uganda signed an extradition treaty which is feared will allow for Rwandan dissidents, especially those involved in the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), to be extradited to Rwanda

Censorship of the media and self-censorship of reporters and citizens remain commonplace in Rwanda. The government has increasingly blocked access to news websites based abroad, likely due to many journalists having fled who are operating from exile. Threats to those in exile are common and the recent extradition treaty signed with the Government of Uganda has created increased fear of returning to persecution for those working in Uganda. Pro-government views dominate domestic media. Public spaces in Rwanda are being increasingly restricted, both before and after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Currently, Rwanda is under total lockdown, which is being enforced by the army. On 25th March 2020, police allegedly shot and killed two men who were violating the conditions of the lockdown by being on the streets.

Expression

On 20th February 2020,Human Rights Watch called for justice over the death of popular singer and activist Kizito Mihigo who was found dead in his cell on 17th February 2020. Although the police cited suicide as the cause of his death, Human Rights Watch indicated that Mihigo had recently informed them that he was being pressured to provide false testimony against political opponents and wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety. He had been arrested on 13th February 2020 near the border with Burundi and charged with attempting to illegally cross the border, joining “terrorist groups” and corruption.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa said:

“There must be no whitewash. The investigation should establish all the facts, including the possible involvement of others and whether prison practices and conditions caused or contributed to Kizito Mihigo’s death.”

Earlier in 2014, Mihigo had been arrested, beaten and forced to confess, charged and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for conspiracy to murder or harm President Paul Kagame after he released a song praying for victims of the 1994 genocide. He was later released in 2018 after a presidential pardon.

Mihigo is not the first high-profile person to die in police custody in Rwanda. A thorough investigation into his death is yet to take place. 

In a separate development, on 21st February 2020, it was reported that Rwanda and Uganda signed an extradition treaty at the border between the two countries in an attempt to improve relations. The treaty provides a bilateral legal framework to handle alleged subversive activities practised by nationals in the territory of the other party. It is feared that such an agreement will allow for Rwandan dissidents, especially those involved in the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), to be extradited to Rwanda. This could be a particular concern for Rwandan citizens who are in exile in Uganda who are deemed to be engaging in political activities.

In March 2020, it was reported that two former senior Rwandan military officers are looking to quash their convictions for “inciting the public” before the East African Court of Justice (EACJ). The two, Col Tom Byabagamba and Brig-Gen (Rtd) Frank Rusagara, were arrested and charged with knowingly spreading “rumours” with intent to incite citizens to oppose and revolt against the established government, committing acts aimed at tarnishing the image of the country and illegal possession of arms, and were originally sentenced in 2016 to 20 and 21 years in jail respectively. The court of appeal in Kigali later reduced their sentences to 15 years each. Byabagamba and Rusagara argue that their continued detention is unlawful and amounts to an infringement of the Treaty establishing the East African Community. The two have not been given copies of the judgment since the decision was made by the court of Appeal on 27th December 2016.

Association in Rwanda

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.

Peaceful Assembly in Rwanda

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.

Expression in Rwanda

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’.